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“People ask me what I do in the winter when there’s no baseball.  I’ll tell you what I do.  I stare out the window and wait for spring.” – Rogers Hornsby

I originally thought of commenting on the World Series, but then realized that every baseball writer in the United States would be doing that.  Instead, I ask the question to every passionate baseball fan that I ask myself after the final out of the World Series: now what?  I don’t enjoy any other sport a tenth as much as I enjoy baseball.  What am I supposed to occupy myself with until spring training?  George Will summed up my opinion of football pretty well when he said, “football combines the two worst aspects of American society: violence punctuated with committee meetings.”  I do enjoy a good live basketball game, but can’t stand to watch the first three quarters of any NBA game or even the first 30 minutes of a college matchup (It also doesn’t help that my two teams – the Timberwolves and Gophers – aren’t at the top of their games lately.

Another sport isn’t going to hold me off.  I’ve come to accept this and have figured out the best ways to enjoy baseball without a single (meaningful) box score to look at until opening day.

Literature
By the end of the World Series, I’m in no way tired of watching baseball, but I am tired of staring the television for three hours a night and watching endless ads for ED drugs, beer and politicians who seem to think if I vote for their opponent, the United States will quickly come under Nazi regime.  There might be a two or three-day vacation from the game until I need my fix.  This is usually when I pick up some sort of baseball biography from my bookshelf or the library.  There is an almost endless number of books on baseball and rarely do I not enjoy one.  I can remember reading nine baseball books one offseason.

I sometimes wonder if I appreciate baseball more in the offseason when I read these books and the game is played out within my imagination.  I can imagine aspects of the game I was never able to see like Roberto Clemente throwing out a runner trying to get from first to third on a single, Babe Ruth hitting home runs at will and then downing a dozen hot dogs and sodas after the game, Bob Uecker catching fly balls during batting practice with a tuba or Sandy Koufax’s curveball dropping like it fell off a table.

Check out my Flashlight Worthy list of great baseball books to get fans through the offseason: http://www.flashlightworthybooks.com/Great-Baseball-Books-Fans/633.

Simulations
Many baseball fans like to play video games on their game system of choice.  For me, I don’t like my team’s ability to win or play well based on how well I can use a controller or my ability to read a pitch from the cartoon on my TV screen.  I can’t stand it when I play video games and I strike out on three pitches out of the strike zone and Albert Pujols is batting.  I think, “Pujols wouldn’t do that!  I would, but if this game were realistic, it wouldn’t let Pujols swing like Bobby Bonds.”

For me, I need realism in my baseball simulations so I turn to the dice game Strat-o-Matic (https://tripleinthegap.wordpress.com/2010/09/09/dungeons-and-dragons-for-baseball-nerds-like-myself)  and sometimes the computer game Baseball Mogul.  Baseball Mogul doesn’t have any real graphics, but does a pretty good job of simulating baseball in the view of a manager and/or general manager/owner.  The player can go through a century with one team and make all the moves from how the game is played on the field to the price of ice cream.

Video library
If it weren’t for the invention of DVDs, my 1991 World Series videotape would probably have worn out by now.  Before I got it on DVD, there was a glitch in the tape just after Kirby Puckett’s catch at the wall in game six from my constant stopping and rewinding.  I have a number of DVDs in my library, but thanks to Netflix, I have many more at my disposal.  Through Netflix, I can rent just about every DVD released by Major League Baseball, including full games of the 1975, 1979 and many other World Series.  Many people ask me how I can watch an entire baseball game I already know the outcome of.  There’s much to learn from watching those old games from Joe Morgan’s routine before every pitch to how the commentators have evolved.  Every game is divided into chapters by half inning, so the viewer can skip to the run-scoring innings.  But that just omits the good defense and pitching.

I’ve also downloaded a number of complete games from iTunes and can watch them on my computer as I wish.  Any classic game is usually available to download within 24 hours after its completion.

There’s also the Ken Burns baseball documentary.  Despite its length of over 18 hours, I seem to watch every winter.

Offseason news
I keep an eye on certain website’s baseball news like Ted Williams watched every pitched ball of his career.  As I go online, I go straight to sites like Yahoo!, Sports Illustrated and the Star Tribune.  Of course, I have these sites bookmarked, so I skip over the main sports page and usually find out how the Packers and Vikings via eavesdropping.

The negative aspect of the around-the-clock news on the internet is that official news rarely comes as a surprise to fans anymore.  When Roy Halladay was traded from the Blue Jays to the Phillies, the rumors had been flying for some time before it was announced.  Even after the rumors comes the news that there is going to be a press conference the next day and so-and-so is expected to be announced as the newest member of their new organization.  Minor trades and free agent signings still happen quickly to the fan, but I’m pretty sure there will be weeks of speculation before Cliff Lee and Carl Crawford sign with anyone this offseason.

Anything else
Whatever else I can do in the offseason to hold me over, I do.  I’ve gone to Twins Fest, an annual get together at the Metrodome which features current and former players as well as way too many merchandisers.  On occasion, I’ll grab my wood bat and take a few swings at the local indoor batting cages.  This usually results in waking up the next morning wondering why my ribs are so sore.  Twice I’ve flown to Arizona to watch spring training games.  My only issue with this is I wish it were in January.  By March, I’m less than a month from opening day and the weather in Wisconsin is beginning to thaw.  It’s the days in January when the high temperature is 2 and the sports pages are filled with the football playoffs that I really need an escape.

A longer offseason than usual for me
On a personal note, I will be moving to Thailand as a Peace Corps volunteer in January.  As far as I know, there is no baseball in Thailand.  How will I cope?  I don’t know other than reading books and keeping a close eye on the news via the internet.  Aside from friends and family, I know baseball will be what I miss the most.

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First and foremost this postseason, I hope the Minnesota Twins win it all.  If that can’t happen, all I ask for is some excitement in major league baseball’s postseason.  It’s been a long time since there’s been some serious drama for the baseball playoffs. 

My definition of a great postseason is fairly simple: a lot of series-deciding games and underdog victories.  I need plenty of division series that go to five games and championship series and World Series that reach the seventh game.  By this definition, the last good postseason was 2003.  

In the last decade of postseason play, there have been 70 series: 40 division series, 20 championship series and 10 World Series.  Only 27 percent (19) have gone to a deciding game.  It’s up to you to determine if this number is low, but to me, it’s far too low.  Why?  Because it’s October and soon I’m not going to see competitive baseball for five lonely months and I want to see as much as possible before I spend 10 minutes every morning scraping ice off my windshield while dreaming of the warm breeze running through the upper deck of Target Field. 

I’ll break down the number of deciding games in each series:
Division series – 25% (10 of 40)
Championship series – 35% (seven of 20)
World Series – 20% (two of 10). 

Only two World Series have reached a seventh game and they came in back-to-back seasons (2001 & 2002).  This is the lowest total by decade since the 1930s, when there was also only two seventh games (the highest total was six, in the 1960s).  This cannot stand.  I realize a good seven-game series has a lot to due with luck and getting two very evenly matched teams against each other.  There’s not much more to it than that.  This blog is not about solutions or reasons why baseball hasn’t had a good postseason for a while.  It’s pretty much just a baseball fan venting his frustration.  

Despite Minnesota’s first of four straight first-round exits in the 2003 playoffs, it proved to be a great October to watch baseball.  In the division series the Cubs and Braves traded wins with Chicago taking the final game thanks to the pitching of Kerry Wood.  The Oakland A’s took the first two games against the Red Sox, only to watch Boston win three straight to send them to the ALCS against the Yankees.  The Marlins / Giants series proved exciting even if it was decided in four games with Florida winning the fourth game thanks to the heroics of Ivan Rodriguez.  

The last time there was a great postseason, Kerry Wood was a good pitcher for the Cubs.

 

Then came the championship series.  On paper they look exciting with both games going to a seventh game.  In real life, they were more than exciting.  At the time, I was rooting for the Red Sox and Cubs, as was most of the nation.  The Red Sox hadn’t won their World Series they’d get the next year and spawn millions of bandwagon fans and the same can be said for Cubs fans … minus the World Series title, of course.  Boston held a 5-2 lead of the seventh game entering the eighth inning.  Some Red Sox fans will point fingers to manager Grady Little or Pedro Martinez, but I pointed straight up to Babe Ruth.  It was the last year of the curse of the Bambino as he guided the Yankees to score three eighth-inning runs followed by an eleventh inning home run by Aaron Boone to take the Yankees to the World Series.  

On the north side of Chicago, there was also a curse involved, but this one hasn’t been broken yet and has much more to do with a poorly run organization and play.  With the Cubs holding a 3-2 lead in the series and a 3-0 lead in the eighth inning, Moises Alou threw a conniption fit when he wasn’t able to make a catch on a foul ball in the stands which then caused shortstop Alex Gonzalez to drop an easy ground ball which then caused the Chicago Cubs to wet the bed and allow eight eighth-inning runs and lose 8-3.  Wood was rocked in the seventh game and Florida won to take the NL pennant.  

The World Series didn’t go seven games, but when the Yankees are involved, I also root for a quick finish.  Josh Beckett shut down New York 2-0 in the sixth game, giving the Florida Marlins their second championship.  

That was a good World Series.  The last great World Series was in 2002 when the Anaheim Angels defeated Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants four games to three.  

Seven years!  It’s been seven years since baseball fans have seen a truly great World Series and six years since there has been a good amount of drama throughout the postseason.  We’re due.  

What do I want from my postseason?  I want John Smoltz versus Jack Morris-style pitching duels.  I want underdog victories from the small-market teams as well as teams who haven’t been seen in the postseason for a long time.  I feel like a James Bond villain as I say this, but I want the Yankees eliminated!  I don’t want to see them in the championship series, let alone the World Series.  The same can be said for the Philadelphia Phillies, but not to the same extent.  I like the players on the Phillies, but they’ve been dominating the National League playoffs the last two seasons and I’d like to see someone new in the World Series.  

FOX Sports and Yankees fans are the only ones who would love to see A-Rod go deep in the postseason.

 

There are some great story lines waiting to happen, but none of them include Mariano Rivera getting the last out in another World Series.  No one thought the Reds would be better than the Cardinals, much less the rest of the division.  The Giants lineup, with exception to rookie Buster Posey (great baseball name, by the way), is from the land of misfit toys.  Baseball fans would like to remember Bobby Cox’s last postseason as a competitive one.  No one believes in the Rays, especially in Tampa Bay.  The Rangers have never won a postseason series.  The Minnesota Twins are the greatest baseball organization in the history of mankind. 

There are so many good things that can happen this postseason.  I’m hoping for all the baseball that’s possible.  The postseason will consist of between 24 and 41 games.  C’mon baseball, we won’t see you for a while … let’s make it last. 

The end of the last great postseason.

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It’s okay that baseball players took steroids.  I’ve come to this conclusion.  It’s the new edge.  The problem is they broke a bunch of records of guys who never took steroids.  Of course, most of these men had their own edge.  Baseball fans want to throw out everything Barry Bonds did because he took steroids.  Why are we so quick to toss out everything this man did against the greatest competition the game has ever seen and we’re okay with Babe Ruth hitting 714 home runs off of the best white boys the beginning of the century had to offer?  Until Mark McGwire came around, everyone knew Roger Maris held the single-season home run record of 61.  Of course, for decades following the 1961 season, there were many who didn’t want him to have that throne since the season was expanded to 162 games that year and it was an expansion season, thinning the pitching talent.

Baseball people like to compare one season’s stats to another, but steroids or not, nothing is really comparable.  Fans might as well be comparing Jose Canseco’s 1988 AL MVP season where he hit 42 home runs and stole 40 bases to Michael Jordan’s 1988 season.

There are a number of reasons for the increase of home runs in the late 90s and early 00s and one of them are steroids.  It’s becoming more and more obvious that a large number of players used performance enhancing drugs (PED) and it wasn’t just the hitters.  I recall the story of Eric Gagne of the Dodgers facing Barry Bonds in San Francisco – both were later linked to PED.  Gagne’s first pitch was 99 mph and Bonds pulled it foul for what would have been a home run if hit 30 feet to the left.  Gagne’s next pitch registered 101 mph and Bonds drove it deep into the San Francisco night for a home run.  For those who want to take away the records, you can count that one – the playing field was evenly skewed.

Bonds set the single-season home run record in 2001 with 73 home runs.  Mark McGwire had set it just three years earlier with the entire nation watching with 70.  Real baseball fans will look at the numbers and realize they’re higher than other seasons, but will look back and appreciate the real home run sluggers.  The guys who did it without PED, tiny ballparks, tightly-wound balls, expansion teams to thin the pitching, another 50 homer hitter hitting behind him and real competition on the mound, on the field and in vying for his job.

Although impressive, Bonds’s stats were skewed by PED.

Based on competition and the blind eye of Major League Baseball, every record holder deserves to be where they are.  It’s up to the fan to pick the best.  This essay is not about who should be in the hall of fame.  It’s not about who’s a good person.  It’s not about who’s a cheater.  It’s about who hit a lot of home runs over one season despite tough competition.  That competition consists of the players on the field, the physical properties of the baseball itself, the home ballpark he’s playing in for 77+ games a season and anything else this baseball fan thinks of.  Barry Bonds’ 73 home runs will stand for many years as the most home runs hit during a single season.  He deserves that title, but backing that is another story.  Bonds may have hit the most home runs over a season, but his 2001 performance is not the most impressive season put together for a slugger.  Here are my thoughts on the top single-season home run seasons of all time.

1 – Barry Bonds 73 (2001).
2 – Mark McGwire 70 (1998).
3 – Sammy Sosa 66 (1998).
4 – Mark McGwire 65 (1999).
5 – Sammy Sosa 64 (2001).
6 – Sammy Sosa 63 (1999).

All six of these records need to be discounted for the performance enhancing drugs they were using, but that’s not all.  These men played in a time when new and smaller ballparks were being built every year.  The cookie cutters of the sixties and seventies were falling fast and those concrete donuts normally had high outfield walls that were at least 330 feet from home plate at the corners.  San Francisco’s AT&T Park has a relatively high right-field wall for Bonds to hit over, but it’s very close to the plate.  When I took a tour of the park a few years ago and walked on the field, all I could think is wow, give me a bat and ball and I could hit one over the wall.  Yes, the power alley is 421 feet away, but the right-field foul pole is only 309 feet from home plate.  A short right-field porch, PED and a tightly-wound ball discount Bonds’ 73 2001 home runs.

I’m going to use the excuse of the tightly-wound ball for every record from 1995 on.  Major League Baseball officials will deny it, but I’ve read numerous testimonies that the seams became harder for the pitcher to grip after the 1994 strike.  Not only did the owners and commissioner initially ignore steroids since the increase in home runs was bringing more fans to the parks, but I believe they also released a stronger baseball that would produce more dingers.

In John Feinstein’s book Living on the Black: Two Pitchers, Two Teams, One Season to Remember, he quotes Mike Mussina on the difference between baseballs before the strike and after.

After the strike, they changed the baseballs.  You could feel it when you put them in your hands.  They’re slicker now, tougher to grip, and they’re wound tighter.  Much tighter.  A year or so after the strike, we were sitting around during a rain delay, talking about how different the baseball felt in your hands.  For some reason, I had kept a few baseballs in my locker from before the strike.  We went and got one and cut it open.  The inside of the ball just lay there; I mean just literally just laid down on the table.  Then we opened up a poststrike ball – it was as if the thing was alive.  It literally stood up on the table next to the one that was just lying there.

I’m going to take away McGwire and Sosa’s records as well for the same reasons – pretty much.  McGwire hit his homers in the old Busch Stadium, which wasn’t exactly a hitters’ paradise, but he did use PED.  Also, 1998 saw the expansion of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays, thinning the pitching competition while Big Mac stayed the same.  Sosa not only used PED, a corked bat (possibly, and it’s been proven it doesn’t help), and hit during the same expansion year as McGwire, but he also did this in Wrigley Field, one of the greatest hitters’ parks in the baseball history.  With a wind blowing out, a tight ball and the power alley in left field a mere 368 feet from home plate, Adam Everett could poke an opposite field home run.

7 – Roger Maris 61 (1961).

I’d love to say that this was the most impressive home run season.  Maris went through hell in a city that treated Babe Ruth like Jesus Christ.  Few wanted Maris to break the record and even the commissioner put an asterisk next to it since major league baseball expanded from 154 to 162 games in 1961.

I will say Maris hit 61 home runs that summer during a time when the game was mostly integrated (even though his own team put a cap on blacks, allowing only Elston Howard to play).  He also hit more homers in a season than anyone at the time under intense media scrutiny.  The man lost hair because of the stress he was going through.  If you haven’t seen Billy Crystal’s film*61, do so now.

Roger Maris had the help of thin pitching, Mickey Mantle and a 296 foot right-field wall.

The arguments against Maris’s 61 home runs are numerous.  Yankee Stadium’s right-field wall was a mere 296 feet from home plate and was the standard height.  That season also saw the expansion of the Washington Senators and California Angels.  Most of the season saw Mickey Mantle batting after Maris.  There’s not a pitcher in 1961 who wanted to pitch around Maris to face Mantle.  Maris saw plenty of juicy fastballs on 3-1 counts.

Sorry Roger, I’ll never put an asterisk next to 61, but it doesn’t impress me as much as others.

8 – Babe Ruth 60 (1927).
9 – Babe Ruth 59 (1921).

Babe may be the greatest player in the history of the game, but his 1927 season doesn’t impress me like it does to others.  Ruth played in the same Yankee Stadium that Maris did (it was built for the Babe).

The big discount to the Babe is that he never faced a black man, let alone a Hispanic, Venezuelan, Dominican, Japanese, Korean, Chinese or many other nationalities in his time.  It wasn’t his fault, but Ruth didn’t face the competition later generations would.  Take one pitcher that Ruth hit multiple home runs against the put Satchel Paige in his place.  Would he still have hit 60 home runs?  No.  He did well against fellow white boys, but we’ll never know what he would have done against the best competition.

10 – Jimmy Foxx (1932), Hank Greenburg (1938), McGwire (1997) and Ryan Howard (2006) 58.

Foxx and Greenburg’s season’s are impressive – more impressive than Ruth’s.  However, they still played in the all-white-boys league, so there are better records to be found.  McGwire did play half of 1997 in Oakland, another pitcher’s park, but he was still using PED.  Howard is another story.

The Philadelphia slugger is a throwback to earlier generations.  He has never been linked to steroids and his power seems to be genuine.  However, he does play in the tiny confines of Citizens Bank Ballpark and hits a tightly-wound ball.  Was his 2006 season a great achievement?  Yes.   Was it the greatest home run season ever?  No.

11 – Luis Gonzalez (2001), Alex Rodriguez (2002) 57.

A-Rod’s reasons are obvious – he told us.  Gonzalez: tight ball, small ballparks and those pipes look suspicious.

12 – Ken Griffey Jr. (1997 & 1998), Hack Wilson (1930) 56.

Griffey, who has one of the sweetest swings in baseball history and has never been linked to PED or shown any symptoms, had the misfortune to play in the tight-ball-steroid era: eliminated.  Wilson played in Wrigley Field against fellow white guys: no go.

13 – Ralph Kiner (1949), David Ortiz (2006), Alex Rodriguez (2007), Babe Ruth (1920 & 1928) 55, Mickey Mantle (1961) 54.

Kiner’s season is the most impressive of these six, but integration had only begun two years earlier and wasn’t in full force yet.

Mantle had Yankee Stadium’s short right-field porch and expansion.

David Ortiz may or may not have been using PED, but also had a tight ball and tiny parks.  Ditto A-Rod.

Ruth needs to take a time machine forward and face Bob Gibson. Then we’ll talk.

14 – George Foster (1977), Mickey Mantle (1956), Willie Mays (1965), Mark McGwire (1996), Alex Rodriguez (2001), Jim Thome (2002) 52.

McGwire and A-Rod are the first voted off for previous reasons.  Thome, like Griffey, seems to be a rare natural hitter in a time of prescribed sluggers, but he’s still linked with the era.  The other three guys left are, by far, the most impressive in the group.

Of the three remaining, Mantle will have to take third place.  He had the benefit of Yankee Stadium (for his left-handed at bats), the game wasn’t as integrated as it would become and 1956 showed an average of 0.9 home runs per game per team, up slightly from other seasons.

It is here where the two greatest home run hitting seasons happened.  Mays hit 52 home runs with half of his games at Candlestick Park, known for its harsh conditions by the bay and swirling winds.  His closest competition was his teammate Willie McCovey who finished with 39 round trippers.  Nineteen sixty five wasn’t 1968, but it wasn’t far off in terms of a pitcher’s game.  National League teams average 0.8 home runs a game, a far cry from 1968’s 0.5 a game, but still impressive.  (To show the dramatic drop 1968 took, the average in 1967 was 0.7.)  The game didn’t have the wide nationality it has today, but it was as fully integrated as the times would allow.  It was three years since expansion in the National League and it would be another three before the next expansion season.

Foster’s 52 home runs in 1977 were done for a second-place team in a big park (Riverfront) with high symmetric walls and in a league with teams also averaging 0.8 home runs a game.  Foster’s closest competition had 11 home runs less than him.  The game was even more integrated than in Mays’s day.

It’s very difficult to pick between Foster’s 1977 season and Willie Mays’s 1965 season.  Both players were MVP’s of their league.  Both played in a pitcher’s park.  Both had a slugger to help them in the lineup (McCovey for Mays and Johnny Bench for Foster).

Although the National League averaged the same number of home runs in both seasons, runs scored and hits were significantly lower in 1965.  Add to that the cruddy weather of Candlestick Park and the greatest single-season home run performance is Willie Mays in 1965.

At the age of 34, Willie Mays slugged 52 home runs in 1965 despite the harsh conditions of Candlestick Park.

Greatest home runs seasons

1 – Willie Mays 52 (1965)

2 – George Foster 52 (1977) 

3 – Frank Robinson 49 (1966) 

In his first season in the American League, Robinson destroyed the competition on his way to his second MVP award and first World Series title.  His 49 home runs were in Memorial Stadium, hardly Camden Yards in terms of a hitters’ park.  It was also 1966, two years short of “The Year of the Pitcher”, but not far off.

4 – Mike Schmidt 48 (1980) 

Perhaps the greatest third baseman of all time, Schmidt’s 1980 season could also be argued as the greatest season for a home run hitter.  The National League team average for home runs per game dipped to a very low 0.6 a game at the end of the Jimmy Carter era.  Schmidt also had little help in his own lineup.  The team averaged lower than the league average with 0.5 home runs a game and that includes Schmidt’s numbers.  The next highest tater total on the Phillies was Greg Luzinski with 19.  The World champs also played in Veterans Stadium, the all-too-common cookie cutter with symmetrical and high outfield walls.

You want to call this No. 1?  I wouldn’t argue.

5 – Willie Stargell 48 (1971) 

Before there was Big Papi, there was Pops.  Playing only 141 games, Stargell launched nearly 50 homers in Veterans, I mean, Riverfront, oops, I mean, Three Rivers Stadium.  The National League team home run average was down a bit at 0.7 and the next highest in the lineup was Bob Robertson with 26.  Despite the gaudy numbers (125 RBI, 104 R) Stargell placed second in MVP voting to Joe Torre (.363 AVG, 137 RBI).

With only 139 games, Hammerin’ Hank was right behind Pops with 47 (see Honorable Mention).

Honorable mention: Hank Aaron 47 (1971), Barry Bonds 73 (2001), Cecil Fielder 51 (1990), Mark McGwire 70 (1998), Harmon Killebrew 49 (1964), Andre Dawson 49 (1987), Ted Kluszewski 49 (1954), Ralph Kiner 54 (1949), Babe Ruth 59 (1921), Johnny Mize 51 (1947), Dave Kingman 48 (1979). 

 

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