The troublesome case of Curt Schilling

2020-01-05 CurtSchillling

On the mound a Hall of Famer, in retirement a Hall of Shamer.

Once upon a time, Curt Schilling’s own general manager (it was Ed Wade, during their Phillies years) described him as “a horse every fifth day and a horse’s ass the other four.” By assorted readings I knew that the pitcher who evoked guts on the mound and philanthropy off it during his career was also a man in retirement who shot from the hip and the lip and bothered about the messes left afterward.

Which made Schilling no worse than assorted non-sports entertainers who speak of things beyond their professions and embarrass themselves likewise, but somewhat less, than they often embarrass those to whom their crafts are received as part and parcel of their daily bread.

But in 2016 there came the notorious Schilling tweet of a T-shirt proclaiming, “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required,” with the just-as-notorious vote of approval reading, “OK, so much awesome here.” (Schilling deleted the tweet when the fit hit the shan, as Mr. Elder would say, but it still lives in a few thousand screen captures if not more.) His momentum for Hall of Fame election hit the wall the way Wile E. Coyote hit the earth falling from the cliff. The only shock, at least when it came to Hall of Fame-voting writers, is that they didn’t carry through on any undisclosed desires to burn Schilling in effigy. At minimum.

Over three years later, at this writing, Schilling by way of publicly disclosed voting has a shot at being elected to Cooperstown this time. According to the Baseball Hall of Fame Vote Tracker, out of votes disclosed publicly (the Baseball Writers Association of America has allowed that the last couple of years) Schilling has 108 votes, or 80 percent of the votes known thus far. He needs to prevail on 75 percent of the total vote, and the Tracker says that means he needs 201 more votes to get there.

The Tracker also says Derek Jeter is at a hundred percent of the known votes, Larry Walker is at 84.4 percent of those, and Barry Bonds is at 75.6 percent. (The winners will be announced on 21 January.) And even Bonds sometimes seems less a controversy than Schilling.

It’s a waste of ink to review Bonds above and beyond a simple if discomfiting fact: Whatever he did or didn’t use among actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances, it happened during baseball’s so-called Wild West Era when the substances ran rampant (and often enough misconstrued) and neither their teams’ administrations, the players’ union, nor then-commissioner Bud Selig was in that big a hurry to stop them. When the owners, the union, and the commissioner finally wised up and brought in testing, the duo’s long careers were pretty much over and out.

Yet it’s Schilling who makes Hall of Fame watchers even more nervously than anything surrounding Bonds. Bonds’s admission a few years ago that yes, he was a first class jerk most of the time when he played, with or without the actual or alleged PEDs, did much to soften his once-forbidding image. Schilling’s only too renowned for the kind of diarrhea of the mouth that provokes even those who agree with him to wish his saliva glands secreted Kaoepectate.

Now we hear from Peter Gammons, one of baseball’s most long-respected journalists, whose Beyond the Sixth Game is the best available analysis of what became of the Red Sox from after the 1975 World Series and the beginning of free agency through 1985. In a lengthy but imperative read at The Athletic, Gammons examines Schilling’s Hall of Fame case and includes this quick but pungent insertion about the “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required” business: “Schilling says he wishes he’d never done so, admitting, ‘it was in poor taste’.”

That may not satisfy two contingencies among those who follow Schilling’s Hall of Fame voting progress. One says Schilling did nothing more than say what a lot of people wish they’d had the guts to say about today’s journalists. The other says Schilling himself should be married to a rope and a tree for even thinking that way about journalists, when he isn’t being flogged for assorted sociopolitical opinions about which “controversial” may resemble a compliment so far as some are concerned. (We should note that most of those Hall voters uncomfortable with Schilling rarely if ever cite his support for today’s not so popular or amiable president as part of their grounds.)

Among purely baseball writers, Jon Heyman of MLB Network, Susan Slusser (the San Francisco Chronicle and a former Baseball Writers Association of America president), and Jose de Jesus Ortiz (another former BBWAA president) were three among many who decided that advocating murder equals the kind of character flaw that enjoins against Hall of Fame enshrinement by way of the character factor among the voting criteria.

When I first saw Schilling’s approval of marrying journalists to ropes and trees, I also thought he went far beyond the line that distinguishes mere criticism from thoughts of homicide. And I wished to God that Schilling remembered he could have drawn the line between objecting to flawed journalism and killing journalists without fearing he was tempering his view.

There’s as much to abhor as to admire about journalism and always has been. There’s scrupulous and unscrupulous journalism alike. Journalists delude themselves if they think otherwise. There’s also the parallel syndrome, likewise undeniable, that bias isn’t a one-way street: Readers see with their biases just as frequently, and not always scrupulously. Enough of what’s considered unscrupulous journalism is considered that not because it is that but because it speaks of things readers simply don’t want to know.

Well, enough of what a politician on any side of the ideological divide denounces as “fake news” isn’t “fake” but, rather, news he or she simply doesn’t like, too. Practising opinion journalism such as I practise now? Of course you get called unscrupulous now and then, not because you are, but because someone reading and disagreeing with your latest offering believes the disagreement by nature indicates scruples missing in action.

Applaud murdering journalists or other writers and speakers with whom you disagree or who brought you news you dispute or didn’t want to hear, and it’s something entirely beyond mere objection. Even American presidents, including the incumbent to whom Curt Schilling’s plighted his political troth, have only harassed with incessant rhetoric if not government apparatus, but they haven’t killed writers whose publications infuriated them—yet. When not using the press for themselves or against each other, that is.

Think of how many people continue to respect Thomas Jefferson as a champion of freedom including and particularly the press—until he wasn’t, then denounced him for saying nothing could be believed in a newspaper until he and his frenemy John Adams needed the newspapers to call each other a hermaphrodite and hypocrite (Jefferson, about Adams) or a half-breed atheistic libertine. (Adams, about Jefferson.) If you thought presidents resorting to schoolboy or locker room-style name-calling began with President Tweety, this Packard Panther car is in my garage and can be had for a measly three large.

Schilling knows only too well that he’s expert at shooting first and regretting later. “Gotta own the times you go off the rails,” he tweeted regarding one such regretted shot. He’s had to own the equivalent of a chain of stores worth of those times since his retirement from baseball, alas. Gammons, who’s known Schilling a long enough time and knows only too well how often his train jumps those rails, thinks the thing that seems to worry Hall of Fame voters most isn’t likely to happen:

My guess is that if Curt Schilling ever walks to the microphone on the stage in Cooperstown, he will be as close to speechless as he’s ever been, and the words that he utters will not be political but instead will honor [Jim] Palmer and [Tom] Seaver, Randy [Johnson] and Pedro [Martinez], [Greg] Maddux, Sandy [Koufax] and [Bob] Gibson.

He may mention the day Tony Gwynn went 5-for-5 against him, or much how he respected [Barry] Bonds, walking him 19 times in 100 plate appearances. I expect he would mention Johnny Podres and Terry Francona and Cal Ripken. And pay homage to Roberto Clemente, because the journey to that podium really began with [his father] Cliff Schilling’s favorite player.

As a pitcher, Schilling is qualified and then some to be a Hall of Famer. “I wouldn’t invite Schilling into my own home,” The Cooperstown Casebook author Jay Jaffe wrote in that book, “and I wouldn’t encourage anyone to view him as a role model, but in my view nothing in his career leaves a doubt that he belongs in Cooperstown. He ranks among the all-time greats via his run prevention skill, his dominance in the game’s most elemental battle of balls and strikes, and his repeated ability to rise to the occasion when the on-field stakes were highest.”

If you doubt that assessment, be reminded that seventeen pitchers have struck out 3,000+ batters but only four of them have done it while walking fewer than 1,000. The four are Schilling and incumbent Hall of Famers Ferguson Jenkins, Greg Maddux, and Pedro Martinez. Nice company to keep, particularly if you consider Jenkins may still be one of the most underrated and under-appreciated pitchers who ever stepped on the mound. If you doubt Schilling’s stature as a true big-game pitcher, you didn’t see him in several pennant races and postseasons, especially in 2004.

Schilling’s right to speak is equal only to someone else’s right to reject the thought, and to reject the thought isn’t quite the same as rejecting his right to enunciate it. Neither is concluding that the thought indicates a character as well as an intellectual flaw. He’s had his feuds with assorted journalists (including the aforementioned Heyman, Slusser, and de Jesus Ortiz), but he hasn’t been suspected of graduating from mere disputes to hunting down and trying to kill them himself, either. Yet.

The voting rule that includes the character factor reads, Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played. The Hall of Fame was born in 1936; that rule, known as Rule 5, was born in 1944. The parents were Hall of Fame founder Stephen Clark and then-commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Landis, whose integrity, sportsmanship, and character allowed him to refuse allowing non-white men to play major and minor league baseball.

The Hall of Fame includes no few whose play was as extraterrestrial as their characters were actually or allegedly subterranean, and they weren’t all elected before 1944, either. It also has no few whose administration of parts or all of the game were suspect. (Landis, anyone? Ford Frick? Bud Selig? George Weiss? Tom Yawkey?) doesn’t mean Hall voters are barred from considering character during or post-career. (Ponder how many still wish to remove O.J. Simpson from football’s Hall of Fame over his long-past-football-career crimes.) There’s no further absolute right to Hall of Fame enshrinement no matter your pure performance papers, really, than there is to play or work in professional baseball in the first place.

A lot of baseball players active and retired have had contentious relations and even shoving matches with members of the press. (“When you like us, we’re the press,” the late New York Times columnist/language maven William Safire once said. “When you hate us, we’re the media.”) A lot of journalists have been just as disdainful of a lot of players, for assorted reasons valid and invalid. But I can’t think of any player who ever suggested marrying even his least favourite journalist to a rope and a tree. Not even sarcastically, which was Schilling’s original defense.

If Schilling’s as sincere as Gammons suggests in regretting his wish for the marriage of journalists to ropes and trees, accept his apology, with the qualifier that you shouldn’t expect every journalist on any block to forget the sarcasm defense. “I don’t blame any journalist for eliminating Schilling from consideration,” Jaffe wrote this past November. “I’m done telling anybody to hold his or her nose and vote for such a candidate just because of stats and a highlight reel.”

Remind yourself, too, that whatever your particular political preferences, Curt Schilling’s worst enemy is the one he sees in the mirror when he shaves. If the Hall of Fame really was an institution to which was affixed and enforced, “Horse’s Asses Need Not Apply,” he wouldn’t belong. But that plane took off eons ago.

One vote samba

2019-11-23 DerekJeterFlip

Derek Jeter performing The Flip. A few Hall of Fame-voting writers seem to have flipped, too.

There’s a rather troublesome trend brewing among Hall of Fame voters in the Baseball Writers Association of America. Since the group now allows public Hall vote disclosure, some early voters are disclosing, all right. They’re disclosing one-vote ballots and the votes are going to Derek Jeter.

Jeter’s Cooperstown enshrinement was a given from the moment he doffed his Yankee pinstripes for the last time. There’s a swelling sense that, as Newsday writer/voter Anthony Rieber puts it, Jeter “deserves to stand alone at the podium as the entire Hall of Fame Class of 2020 on July 26 in Cooperstown.”

And, a parallel sense enunciated by another Newsday writer, Steve Marcus, that the Hall of Fame is getting a little too crowded, which he emphasises with his #keeptheHallsmall hashtag. Marcus also declared, a la the headline attached to a 2019 column in question, “Legends are my baseline for baseball Hall of Fame ballot.”

I’ll take the first argument first. It’s a relative to the old discredited argument that, if so-and-sos didn’t get elected on their first tries, then so-and-sos to come shouldn’t be elected first ballot, either.

Try this one on for size: How would you like someone arguing that if Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth, and Cy Young Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, and Honus Wagner didn’t get to stand alone when inducted into Cooperstown, then nobody else should, either? Didn’t think so.

As it happens, only 22 players in the history of the Hall of Fame were the only ones to be elected by the BBWAA in the years they got the call. That’s less than ten percent of all major league players in the Hall, whether elected by the writers or the assorted Veterans Committees:

Rogers Hornsby (1942)
Charlie Gehringer (1949)
Luke Appling (1964)
Ted Williams (1966)
Red Ruffing (1967)
Joe Medwick (1968)
Lou Boudreau (1970)
Ralph Kiner (1975)
Ernie Banks (1977)
Eddie Mathews (1978)
Willie Mays (1979)
Bob Gibson (1981)
Willie McCovey (1986)
Willie Stargell (1988)
Reggie Jackson (1993)
Steve Carlton (1994)
Mike Schmidt (1995)
Phil Niekro (1997)
Ozzie Smith (2002)
Bruce Sutter (2006)
Goose Gossage (2008)
Barry Larkin (2012)

You might have thought a few of those men deserved to stand alone among BBWAA choices, of course. Who’d argue against Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton, Mike Schmidt, and Ozzie Smith? Not I, said the fly. Maybe Reggie Jackson, too. The man was one of a kind, even if some of his critics might follow saying so with “Thank God!”

Now, would you like to know whom among those BBWAA winners really stood alone? As in, standing at the induction podium with nobody else—not a Veterans Committee selection, not an executive, not a pioneer, not a Negro Leagues inductee, nobody—on their big day? Four—Hornsby, Stargell, Jackson, and Smith.

Rieber and Marcus and probably a few more writers, not necessarily confined to the BBWAA’s New York contingent, think Jeter belongs to that set and maybe even subset. Set aside for the moment that he was actually an overrated shortstop, overall, and you can still find the plausible argument that Jeter wasn’t quite in league with such position players as Williams, Mays, Schmidt, and Smith.

Come to think of it, there’s a better case that Jeter’s longtime “Core Five” Yankee teammate, Mariano Rivera, deserved the stand-alone BBWAA vote more if the circumstances granted it. Rivera was the absolute best in the business at what he did. Jeter wasn’t, quite.

Don’t go there about the postseasons just yet. Yes, like The Mariano, Jeter and the postseason were a long, happy marriage. His postseason OPS is comparable to Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson’s lifetime OPS per 162 games. Think about that for a moment: Jeter as a number two hitter in the postseason was equal to a Hall of Fame leadoff hitter on the regular season, even if the Man of Steal could beat Captain Clutch in a footrace with one leg amputated.

The player who makes the absolute difference between his team getting to or missing the postseason is extremely rare. Jeter’s Yankees getting there in the first place, never mind winning five rings, were total team efforts. (Jeter did win one World Series MVP, in 2000.) Just as Williams’s Red Sox getting to only one World Series, Mays’s Giants getting to only three (winning one), Schmidt’s Phillies getting to only one (and winning), and Smith’s Cardinals getting to three (winning once) were total team shortfalls.

But Jeter did shine in the postseason. And made it look so simple a child of five could have done it. (Thanks, Groucho.) If you thought he was already built to act as though the New York heat met its match in his charisma and his ability to duck every controversy that swarmed his Yankees, come the postseason Jeter played as if the big moment was just another day on the job, just another chance to play the game he loved.

(Just for the record: Lifetime, Jeter’s best performance was in medium-leverage situations, with a .321/.380/.464 slash line. His high-leverage performance was almost even with it: .311/.391/.418. Medium-leverage OPS: .844; high-leverage OPS: .809. When the stakes were lowest, so was Jeter: .299/.371/.426, with a Boeing OPS: .797. It’s no crime that a man saves his best for when it matters just that much more toward winning.)

Reggie Jackson once talked about “the magnitude of being me,” and for all his once-outsized ego he didn’t necessarily mean it as self-congratulation. Jeter lived the magnitude of being him as though it was as natural as coffee at the breakfast table and worth just as much discussion—none.

Jeter’s Hall of Fame election would make him the tenth Hall of Fame shortstop of the post-World War II/post-integration/night baseball era. The longer I watched him, especially in all those postseasons, the more I now wanted to see how he stacks against the nine others according to my real batting average concept.

In traditional BA terms, the terms I prefer to call the hitting average, he’s a lifetime .310 hitter. And he does have those 3,465 career hits. But there’s a problem there: the hitting average is an incomplete picture of a man at the plate, and 3,000+ lifetime hits by themselves tell you nothing about what they were actually worth.

Stop snarling, grumpy old giddoff-mah-lawners. Ask yourself how proper it is to declare all hits are created equal and divide them purely by official at-bats. And ask yourself whether 3,465 career hits are really better than 3,184 hits. Yes, that’s a ringer. The 3,184 belong to Cal Ripken, Jr., whose lifetime hitting average (sorry, I’m sticking with the program again) was .276. And as I’m about to show you, Ripken was actually a better man at the plate than Jeter was, without once suggesting that it means Jeter doesn’t belong in Cooperstown.

We should ask why we don’t account for everything a man does at the plate. We should ask why we don’t add his total bases (which do treat all hits the way they should be treated: unequal, unless you really think a single’s equal to a double’s equal to a triple’s equal to a home run), his walks, his intentional walks (why aren’t we crediting a guy when the other team would rather he take his base than their pitchers’ heads off?), his sacrifices, and the times he got plunked? (They want to put you on the hard way, let it be on their heads.) And, we should ask why we don’t divide that total by his total plate appearances.

And then, we should do just that. TB + BB + IBB + SAC + HBP / PA. That’s your real batting average. And this is how Derek Jeter stacks up with the nine incumbent postwar/post-integration/night ball Hall of Fame shortstops:

Shortstop PA TB BB IBB SAC HBP RBA
Luis Aparicio 11230 3504 736 22 177 27 .398
Ozzie Smith 10778 3084 1072 79 277 33 .422
Phil Rizzuto 6719 2065 651 35 195 49 .446
Pee Wee Reese 9470 3038 1210 67 176 26 .477
Alan Trammell 9376 3442 850 48 200 37 .488
Robin Yount 12249 4730 966 95 227 48 .495
Derek Jeter 12602 4921 1082 39 155 170 .505
Barry Larkin 9057 3527 939 66 126 55 .520
Cal Ripken 12883 5168 1129 107 137 66 .539
Ernie Banks 10395 4706 763 202 141 70 .565
HOF SS AVG .486

Jeter’s .505 is the fourth best among the group. It’s nineteen points above the average for the Hall of Fame shortstops, and only Barry Larkin, Cal Ripken, and Ernie Banks are ahead of him. He’s third in walks behind Ripken and Reese; he’s second only to Ripken for total bases; he’s third to last (ahead of only Rizzuto and Aparicio) for intentional walks; he’s fourth to last in sacrifices (Larkin, Ripken, and Banks are behind him), but boy did he take more for the team getting plunked. (Nobody else among the shortstops has more than 70.)

In other words, Jeter’s a bona fide, above the average, Hall of Fame shortstop, and collecting more hits than any Hall of Fame infielder counts even if the total picture offensive picture lines him up fourth among postwar/post-integration/night-ball shortstops.

It’s his defense that leaves Jeter a little overrated. He was Ozzie Smith-acrobatic at his best. His gymnastics happened often enough, even if the Wizard of Oz makes The Captain resemble an aspirant. Maybe the signature defensive play of Jeter’s career, among several highlight-filmers, was that barehand grab of a throw home from right that missed two cutoff men, Jeter running down the infield from shortstop, hitting the middle of the first base line as he grabbed the ball, and the backward shovel pass home as he stepped into foul ground, to nail Jeremy Giambi at the plate in the 2001 American League division series.

But Jeter did have more limited range at the position than you remember, and he wasn’t as good at saving runs as you expected him to be when you remembered all the dazzlers he performed, despite having a strong throwing arm and steady hands. Lifetime, Jeter at shortstop was 155 defensive runs saved below average, and he was 13 runs saved below average a year.

There’s the difference. Watching Jeter and Smith their entire careers was as entertaining as it got. They were both shortstop acrobats. But that’s where the comparison ends. The Wizard of Oz was a Flying Wallenda  and the greatest defender at the position. Jeter’s no less a Hall of Famer because for all his own flying he wasn’t even close to Ozzie Smith-great at shortstop. Nobody else really was, either.

Which returns me to Steve Marcus and his legend measurement. Jeter is one of eighteen Hall of Fame ballot premieres, with fourteen more making return engagements. Never mind the controversies attached to the following players, for now (including the one his one-time general manager described as “a horse every fifth day and a horse’s ass the other four”), but the ballot includes a few other legends: Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, and Sammy Sosa.

Of course, not every legend is a Hall of Famer (hello, Roger Maris, for openers) and not every Hall of Famer is a legend, either. (Nice to meet you, Bobby Wallace.) If Marcus and others of his like think only bona fide legends belong in Cooperstown, then Bonds, Clemens, Schilling, and Sosa are as overqualified as Jeter. If they think those guys aren’t legends, they’ve been sleeping longer than Rip Van Winkle.