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Goodbye, Scooter: Insults didn’t stop Rizzuto from living a wonderful life

My first opportunity to break out of the Fungoes box with SI.com came with the news of Phil Rizzuto’s death on August 14, 2007. Though I had already been writing the Wild Card entry in the Fungoes blog for SI for five months at that point, I still think of this as my first proper SI.com piece, not because of the quality of the content, but because it was the first time my work for the site appeared on the standard SI.com template (see image below for a reminder of what the site looked like back then) and was rewarded with a proper freelance fee (we were paid for Fungoes, of course, but a relative pittance). Looking back at it now, it’s not a particularly strong piece, but it established my ability to provide quality work quickly on deadline in reaction to breaking news and likely did more to create my subsequent opportunities at SI.com than the previous four and a half months of Fungoes pieces combined. The piece has since vanished from the interwebs along with most of my other SI pieces from that year, but I’m republishing it below exactly as it appeared on SI.com in August 2007, warts and all.

SI.com template, August 2007

By Cliff Corcoran, Special to SI.com

“Would you accept reincarnation if you knew you would come back as Phil Rizzuto of the Money Store?”

–The Book of Stupid Questions, 1988

Both then and now, I find the question, which was posed in one of those trendy party question books from the ’80s, impossibly offensive. Not only does it take an unprovoked shot at one of my all-time favorite people I’ve never met, it also betrays such a complete lack of understanding of who Phil Rizzuto was and of the life he led.

Perhaps it’s inappropriate to lead off this tribute to the memory of Rizzuto with such an insult, but Rizzuto lived his life in defiance of such insults, and lived a life any one of us would be fortunate to relive. Rizzuto was famously insulted by Casey Stengel when he tried out for Stengel’s Brooklyn Dodgers in the mid-’30s (“go get a shoeshine box,” said Casey). A decade and a half later Rizzuto would be the starting shortstop on Stengel’s five consecutive World Series-winning Yankee teams, earning the 1950 AL MVP along the way.

Rizzuto was famously insulted by the Yankees organization in 1956 when George Weiss forced him into retirement by making Rizzuto select himself as the player to be removed from the roster to make room for Enos Slaughter. Weiss was slaughtered in the press for the move and the team’s broadcast sponsor insisted that Rizzuto be hired to broadcast the team’s games the following season. Rizzuto was still in the same job 39 years later when the team forced him to call a game rather than attend Mickey Mantle’s funeral. Rizzuto, enraged and embarrassed, quit mid-game, but public outcry brought him back for a 40th and final season.

My voice was one of those calling Rizzuto back. The Scooter may have had more to do with my becoming a baseball fan than anyone else. Though my family is filled with Yankees fans dating back to the days of Babe Ruth, I had no older sibling to turn me on to baseball and neither of my parents was particularly interested in professional sports when I was growing up. Instead it was Rizzuto, with his enthusiasm, good humor and wildly entertaining and unpredictable asides (which were a good match for the often tragicomic play of the mid-’80s Yankees), who sold me on the joys of the game and its history despite the poor quality of the team I was watching.

Even then I was aware of the slights Rizzuto had endured. In 1984 Pee-Wee Reese was selected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee, leaving Rizzuto on the outside looking in at his former crosstown rival. A decade later Rizzuto was finally inducted as well, only to have Bill James devote a large portion of his book The Politics of Glory to bemoaning Rizzuto’s selection. Though James ends his book by stating clearly that Rizzuto was “certainly not the worst player to stand on that podium,” many glossed over that line and dubbed Rizzuto precisely that (including the charming fellow who sponsors Rizzuto’s page on basebaballreference.com). It’s true that Rizzuto was inducted ahead of many far more deserving players, many of whom continue to await their day in Cooperstown, and that his induction has as much to do with a well-stocked veterans committee, led by Ted Williams (who often said that Rizzuto was the difference between the Yankees and Red Sox in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s). It’s also true that Rizzuto is far from the worst player in the Hall. Just look at the list of old cronies Frankie Frisch and Bill Terry helped through the door via the Veterans Committee in the early 1970s. The fact remains that, whereas Terry and Frisch were lining up former teammates, Rizzuto was inducted because the greats of the game, Williams and Ty Cobb among them, thought he deserved to be listed as one of their equals.

Unlike Williams or Cobb, Rizzuto was a hard man not to like. Though he held a grudge against Stengel’s shoeshine box comment throughout his life, and retired from broadcasting over Mantle funeral incident, I’ve never seen nor heard an unflattering word about the man. Whether you marveled at his wizardry in the field as a fan, cursed his pesky presence in the batters box or on the bases, laughed with him or at him while listening to a Yankees broadcast, or only knew him as the (reportedly unwittingly) double-entendre-spouting play-by-play announcer in the middle of Meat Loaf’s Paradise by the Dashboard Light, he brought good spirit to and evoked admiration from all those whose lives were touched by his.

It wasn’t such a bad thing to be Phil Rizzuto, Hall of Famer, seven-time World Series champ, MVP, All-Star, a man who spent a half-century in baseball interrupted only by his naval service during World War II. It’s no wonder Rizzuto endured all of those slights with such good humor. Beyond his accomplishments on the field and in the booth, Rizzuto enjoyed more than 60 years of marriage to his beautiful bride Cora (who was a frequent character in his broadcast banter), and is survived by three children and two grandchildren. We should all be so lucky to live the life Phil Rizzuto lived, but we are already very fortunate that he lived it. Rest in peace, Scooter.

Cliff Corcoran is the co-author of Bronx Banter.

 

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Deleted Scenes: Crunching the numbers on A-Rod’s initial PED confession

The following was originally published on SI.com on February 13, 2009 under the headline “Was it the PEDs or the Park? A look inside A-Rod’s Texas numbers.” It is one of several of my older articles that was lost in the site’s redesign in June 2014. I’m republishing it here, unaltered, from my original submission, prior to any editing by SI.com’s editors. Given that this is an incendiary topic, I want to point out here that the intention of this article wasn’t (and isn’t) to absolve Rodriguez of wrongdoing, he’s very clearly guilty of extensive performance-enhancing drug use, but to attempt to discern how much, if at all, that drug use aided his performance on the field.

While others debate the sincerity and completeness of Alex Rodriguez’s confession to Peter Gammons on Monday, let’s push past the he said/she said between Rodriguez and Selena Roberts, past the garment-rending over the impact of his drug use upon the history and integrity of the game, and past the love/hate relationship baseball fans have with Rodriguez, a superstar bizarrely burdened with intense insecurities. Instead, let’s take a cold, hard look at the seasons during which Rodriguez admitted he had experimented with banned substances to see what impact, if any, those substances had on his performance on the field.

If we take Rodriguez at his word, his three years as a Texas Ranger from 2001 to 2003, were the only seasons during which he used illegal performance-enhancing drugs. In those three seasons, he hit 156 home runs. By comparison, in his last three seasons with the Mariners, from 1998 to 2000, he hit 125 and in his first three seasons with the Yankees, from 2004 to 2006, he hit 119. In those six bookend seasons, he surpassed 42 homers just once, but in his three seasons in Texas he hit 47 or more every year.

So yes, Alex Rodriguez hit more home runs when he was juicing, but was it because he got his power from a pill, or were there other factors at work? Consider the fact that Rodriguez missed just one game in his three years with Texas, playing in 485 of the Rangers’ 486 games over that span. In his first three seasons with the Yankees, he played in 14 fewer. In his last three seasons with the Mariners, he played in 47 fewer. Rodriguez told Gammons on Monday that a large part of his motivation for experimenting with banned substances was his desire to be able to play every day through the hot Texan summers. In helping him achieve that goal, the drugs clearly worked.

The question then becomes, to what degree did Rodriguez’s ill-gotten ability to play every day contribute to the surge in his power numbers. Consider his home runs rates in each of the three-year spans mentioned above (expressed as plate appearances per home run):

  • SEA ’98-00: 15.94 PA/HR
  • TEX ’01-03: 13.92 PA/HR
  • NY ’04-’06: 17.54 PA/HR

Those figures tell us that, not only did Rodriguez take the field more often during his three drug years than in the three-year periods immediately before and after, but he also went deep more often, homering more often than once every 14 plate appearances during his time in Texas. Yet, while there’s a strong correlation between Rodriguez’s drug use and playing time, the source of Rodriguez’s power surge lies elsewhere.

Safeco Park, which Rodriguez’s Mariners moved into in mid 1999, is a pitchers park, as was the remodeled Yankee Stadium, the latter of which was particularly hard on right-handed power hitters such as Rodriguez. The Ballpark at Arlington, on the other hand, is a launching pad. Factor in a year and a half of play at the similarly homer-happy Kingdome in 1998 and 1999, and those home run rates above would seem to correspond to park factors as much or more than to drug use.

To get rid of the effects of his home parks, let’s take a second look at Rodriguez’s home run rates using only his performance on the road during each of those three-year spans:

  • SEA ’98-00: 13.61 PA/HR
  • TEX ’01-’03: 14.76 PA/HR
  • NY ’04-’06: 18.68 PA/HR

Here we see that Rodriguez was a better home-run hitter on the road during his last three “clean” seasons with the Mariners than he was during his three drug years with the Rangers. Those two periods offer a particularly strong comparison because Rodriguez spent all six years in the AL West. Thus, save for moving roughly 12 percent of his road games (10 of 81 annually) from Texas (as a visiting Mariner) to Seattle (as a visiting Ranger), his road games were played in essentially identical environments.

Rodriguez went deep on the road approximately 8 percent less often as a Ranger while playing 12 percent of his road games in a less friendly home-run environment. Given that his Ranger years coincided with his peak-age years (ages 25 to 27), during which an increase in power would have been expected even without the help of illegal substances or a friendlier home park, it’s difficult to attribute any of his overall increase in power during those years to the drugs.

In fact, glancing back at those road rates above, there’s a superficial appearance of a power decline beginning, not with his first “clean” season in New York in 2004, but with his arrival in Texas in 2001, which is when Rodriguez claimed he started using performance-enhancers. That decline may be superficial in the above numbers, but in reality it ran much deeper, as I first reported in an analysis I did of Rodriguez’s career trends for Bronx Banter following the 2004 season. That piece centered around what I referred to as, “a minor, but still unsettling downward trend in Rodriguez’s offensive numbers” that “began with Alex’s first season in Texas in 2001, but was disguised by his move from the pitcher-friendly Safeco Park . . . to the [hitter-friendly] Ballpark at Arlington.”

I detected this trend—which began with Rodriguez’s age-24 season in 2000, his last with the Mariners, continued through his three seasons in Texas, and concluded with his first season as a Yankee in 2004—in several park-adjusted, total-offense rate stats, including Baseball Prospectus’s Equivalent Average (EqA), Baseball-Reference’s adjusted OPS (OPS+), and Bill James’ Offensive Winning Percentage (OWP). Consider the following progression from 2000 to 2004, with Rodriguez’s three Texas seasons in bold:

EQA: .343, .331, .322, .320, .309
OPS+: 167, 164, 152, 148, 133
OWP: .770, .749, .705, .697, .654

I could have listed other stats that exhibit the same trend, both adjusted and non-adjusted (WARP, Runs Created, Runs Created Against Average, Runs Created Per Game, unadjusted OPS, Gross Production Average, etc.), but there was no need. The trend was real and four years running.

That analysis of Rodriguez’s performance trends was untainted by any knowledge or suspicion of his drug use while with the Rangers and, just as I have now done four years hence, wrote off the apparent surge in Rodriguez’s numbers while in Texas as park-driven while digging beneath those gaudy counting stats to reveal a modest decline in his overall production during his three years in Texas.

Since joining the Yankees, Rodriguez has enjoyed the two best seasons of his career, both of which supposedly came without the aid of performance-enhancing drugs. Consider how his MVP seasons of 2005 and 2007 compare with the five seasons listed above:

  2005 2007
EQA .351 .353
OPS+ 173 177
OWP .787 .780

Put this all together, and it’s clear that, if he is indeed telling the truth about his drug use being limited to his three years in Texas, the only noticeable benefit Alex Rodriguez derived from his experimentations with banned substances was his ability to play 485 of the Rangers’ 486 games during his three years with the club. That’s no small thing. There are some who believe that the must undervalued statistic in baseball is games played. It’s irrefutable that Rodriguez’s ability to take the field every day as a Ranger enabled him to put up the remarkable counting stats he compiled in a Texas uniform, chief among them his 57 home runs in 2002. Still, there’s no evidence that the drugs made him any more powerful, and significant evidence that his rate of production actually declined during his doping years.

Rather, it was the ballpark, not the drugs, that seems to have been the key to Rodriguez’s statistical surge (34 of his 57 homers in 2002 came in Arlington where he homered once every 10.6 PA vs. once every 15.7 PA on the road in 2002). Whether or not that’s enough to convince anyone, myself included, that his statistics remain “untainted” is, unfortunately, another matter entirely and one far less likely to be settled in Rodriguez’s favor.

 

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Season’s Previews

With what I’ve been calling Preview Week drawing to a close, here’s a catch-all post the various preview stuff I participated in this week, silly as some of it may be.

At SI.com:

Expanded experts’ picks

Why Your Team Won’t Win The World Series (with Jay Jaffe)

Ten Must-See Games for 2013

Five must-see series in April

Reading into spring statistics: Which players’ spring performances are likely a sign of things to come

At SB Nation:

The Year in NL Pitching

2003 MLB season preview: The unexpected (with the other Designated Columnists)

Pitchers are people too: Can the Yankees’ rotation guide them to October baseball?

And while I’m at it, here are the other Hit and Run posts I wrote this week:

Buster Posey extension good for Giants, bad for free agency

Wainwright extension a perfect compromise for both sides

Johan Santana’s career threatened by reoccurrence of shoulder tear

Lohse agrees to terms with Brewers, ending long national nightmare

Opening Day Rosters: Who’s In, Who’s Out?

Oh, and I also wrote the post below this one, It’s Not Tim McCarver’s Fault You Hate Him.

 
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Posted by on March 29, 2013 in My Writing

 

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Postseason Coverage: Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012

I have five pieces up on SI.com today, so rather than send out five tweets about them, I thought I’d put the five links here for one-stop shopping. They are:

Enjoy!

 
 

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