Friday, September 23, 2011

"Sandman" Mariano Rivera & the "Save Rule"

By Harvey Frommer

"Enter Sandman" blared again over the Yankee Stadium speakers. Mariano Rivera of the New York Yankees tipped his cap to the crowd and beamed. The Yankee "stopper" had set a new major league record - 602 career saves. Needing just 13 pitches, the storied hurler notched a shutdown ninth inning on September 19th, locking up the Yankee 6-4 win over Minnesota. He got Trevor Plouffe, Michael Cuddyer and Chris Parmelee in order.
On May 23, 1995, the slender 25-year-old rookie Mariano Rivera, in his major league debut, lasted but 3 1/3 innings, yielding 8 hits and 5 runs. The Yankees lost, 10-0, to the Angels at Anaheim Stadium. That season the son of a Panamanian fisherman started ten games, allowed eight homers and 35 runs in 50 innings and was demoted to the bullpen,
On May 17, 1996 at the old Yankee Stadium against the Angels, Rivera recorded his first career save, the first of five that season. He was primarily John Wetteland's setup man then. In 1997, he became the closer for the Yanks. His money pitch, a sizzling cut fastball, was and is his mighty, some would say, his only weapon. Year after year opposing players have known it was coming, but they have done very little against it.
Throughout the baseball season of 2011 especially in New York City there was much hype and hoopla over the 12-time All Star's quest to set the all- time saves record. And there has been much celebration, exaltation and lauding of the feat now accomplished.
Stats galore have been trotted out in tribute to the magnificence of the gentlemanly Rivera's career achievements. Mo has a record 15 straight seasons of 25 or more saves, a stunning record 89% save percentage and the lowest career ERA (2.22) since the 1920s. In his 17-season Yankee career, Rivera has gone 75-57 with 602 saves recorded in 674 opportunities.
And many have labeled the gentlemanly Yankee the greatest pitcher of his era. Others have gone further calling him one of the greatest pitchers of all time. There are those who refer to Rivera as the greatest closer in baseball history. On the other hand, however, there are some who claim that he ranks as the most overrated player in baseball history.
Bill Plaschke of the, LA Times notes: Rivera has recorded an average of barely more than three outs, with 1,209 innings pitched in 1,039 games. How can he be considered among the game's greatest pitchers if he works one-sixth of the time? How can he be considered among the game's greatest players if he plays one-ninth of a full game?"
And legendary sports expert Len Berman adds: " For someone to amass so many saves he not only needs longevity, he needs to play on winning teams for a great number of years. That's why all saves aren't created equal. You can hit homers, or have a high batting average against
anyone. But to get saves, you really do need a 'little help from your
friends' (The Yankees)."
These insightful comments notwithstanding, it is not Mariano Rivera under fire in the "saves" controversy. It is really the "save stat" and the whole culture connected to it.
The "save rule" was created by respected Chicago baseball scribe Jerome Holtzman in 1960. "At that time,"as Holzman explained, "there were only two stats to measure the effectiveness of a reliever: earned run average and the win-loss record." What Holzman had concocted was baseball's first new major statistic since the RBI in 1920. "The save" was officially adopted by Major League Baseball in 1969.
Rule 10.20 in the Official Rule Book states:
Credit a pitcher with a save when he meets all three of the following conditions:
(1) He is the finishing pitcher in a game won by his club; and
(2) He is not the winning pitcher; and
(3) He qualifies under one of the following conditions:
- (a) He enters the game with a lead of no more than three runs and pitches for at least one inning; or
- (b) He enters the game, regardless of the count, with the potential tying run either on base, or at bat, or on deck (that is, the potential tying run is either already on base or is one of the first two batsmen he faces; or
- (c) He pitches effectively for at least three innings. No more than one save may be credited in each game.
What Holzman had wrought became an over-blown, over-hyped, over-used stat that revolutionized the game. "Firemen" back in the day generally toiled multiple innings in a game. They also generally returned to pitch again the next day. From the time the save rule became an official stat through 1985, one inning saves composed only 21% of all saves. Then things began to change.
Today's stoppers have a much reduced workload, mostly one inning of work and generally no work the next day. Many hurlers would not have had the success they had had they been starters. Suddenly they became superstar stoppers and wealthy men as a result of the "save rule." Pitchers today make millions a season working almost solely ninth innings of games when their team is ahead.
This is the culture of the "save" and one that for better or worse Mariano Rivera has been part of that culture.
Red Sox broadcaster and Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley, beneficiary of all the "save" had to offer is, quite frank: "The save is overrated."
All of this, however, has nothing to do with Mariano Rivera. His grace under pressure, his machine-like efficiency, his piling up all these saves is a one of a kind, top of the hill accomplishment. The rules were not made by the great Rivera. He simply did his job year after year in the time of the one-inning closer. His greatness is not to be questioned.
However, the rules governing the "save" deserve some thorough questioning and perhaps some tinkering.

Harvey Frommer is in his 36th year of writing books. A noted oral historian and sports journalist, the author of 41 sports books including the classics: "New York City Baseball,1947-1957" and "Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball," his acclaimed REMEMBERING YANKEE STADIUM was published in 2008 and his REMEMBERING FENWAY PARK: AN ORAL AND NARRATIVE HISTORY OF THE HOME OF RED SOX NATION was published to acclaim in 2011.

His work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, New York Daily News, Newsday, USA Today, Men's Heath, The Sporting News, among other publications.

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Monday, September 19, 2011

Sad Days at Fenway Park in the 1960s

(Excerpt from Remembering Fenway Park: An Oral and Narrative History of the Home of the Boston Red Sox/Abrams 2011 - - now available in stores, on-line and direct from the author)
By Harvey Frommer
The joy and passion and full houses (breaking the 700 straight sellout mark and counting) and winning ways now on parade at Fenway Park all are a sharp contrast to the way things once were at the little ballpark in most of the 1960s.
There are still those around who recall that time, some with mixed emotions.
SAM MELE: I came into Fenway a lot when I managed Minnesota from 1961 to 1967. My home was still in Quincy, Mass. So I slept in my own bed. It was funny. I was managing against the team that I loved.
In 1965, we beat Boston 17 out of 18 times, 8 out of the 9 at Fenway. It actually hurt me, to beat them. I felt sorry because in my heart I was a Red Sox fan. I had played for them, I had scouted for them. Tom Yawkey would come in my office. And we would talk a lot. Oh yeah, geez, he had me in his will.
The losing, the miserable attendance, the doom and gloom that pervaded Fenway was on parade big time on the 16th of September. The tiniest crowd of the season made its way into Fenway Park - - just 1,247 paid and 1,123 in on passes. Dave Morehead opposed Luis Tiant of the Cleveland Indians.
Fenway was a ghost town of a ball park in 1965 when the team drew but 652,201, an average of 8,052 a game . The worst came late in the season. On September 28th against California only 461 showed to watch the sad Sox. The next day was even worse against the same team just 409 in the house. Finishing 9th in the ten-team American League, the Sox lost 100 games and won 62. The nadir had been breached.
Managers kept coming and going. Top prospects somehow never made it for one reason or another. Billy Herman was in place as the 1966 season started. Early on Dave Morehead, just 24, regarded as a brilliant future star, suffered an injury to his arm and was never the same. Posting a 1-2 record in a dozen appearances, he symbolized the Red Sox of that era - promise but pathos.
In 1966, the Sox lost 90 games and finished ninth. Attendance at Fenway Park was 811,172, an average attendance per game of 10, 095. It was pitiful.
JIM LONBORG: The 1967 season started off as a typical Red Sox season. There were 8,324 fans on a cold and dreary April 12th, Opening Day. We beat the White Sox 5-4. Petrocelli hit a three-run homer. And I got the win.
The next day there were only 3,607 at the ballpark. And then we went on a road trip. We came back having won 10 straight games. And when our plane landed there were thousands of fans waiting at the airport. That moment was the start of the great relationship between the fans and the players.
BOB SULLIVAN: I went to Dartmouth, and we used to road trip down to Fenway and get standing room without any trouble. It was eight dollars for grandstand seats. But so many seats were empty. You would flip an usher a quarter and you could move down into the seats. Then it changed. What happened was '67.
A noted oral historian and sports journalist, cited in the Congressional Record and the New York State Legislature, Harvey Frommer has written forty one sports books. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, New York Daily News, Newsday, USA Today, Men's Heath, The Sporting News, among other publications.
Dr. Frommer, dubbed "Dartmouth's own Mr. Baseball" by the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, received his Ph.D. from New York University. Professor Emeritus, City University of New York, he has been a professor in the MALS program at Dartmouth College since 1992, where he has taught courses in oral history and culture and sports journalism.

Monday, September 12, 2011

New York Yankee September Pasts (from the Vault)

Whenever the month of September comes around, thoughts turn to BUCKY DENT'S HOME RUN ­ October 2, 1978 and THE BOSTON MASSACRE, September 7, 1978. But there have been other marker moments that linger in memory. A brief list follows: .
His major league career began with the Cleveland Indians in 1914, continued with the Red Sox from 1916-21, with the Yankees (1922-26), the Browns (1927), the Senators (1928-31), and the White Sox (1932-35). Twice a 20-game winner, Samuel Pond Jones won 229 games and lost 217 in 22 seasons pitching in the American League.
A stylish right-hander, one of the first major leaguers to wear eyeglasses on the field, Jones had his ups and downs. Like most pitchers of his time, he relieved and started. His eight saves in 1922 were tops in the league.. In 1923, he won 21 games, but lost a league-high 21 in 1925 as the Yanks dropped to seventh place
Jones won 67 games as a Yankee in five seasons. No game was more dramatic for him than his September 4, 1923 no-hitter, a 2-0 gem against the Athletics. It capped his career year, a time he was the Yankee ace, hurling New York to its first World Championship.

JIM ABBOTT NO HITTER, September 4, 1993
The Yankees traded for him on December 6, 1992. He was born without a right hand, but he persevered, more than persevered. A graduate of the University of Michigan, Jim Abbott carried the United States flag during the opening ceremonies at the 1987 Pan American Games in Indianapolis and pitched for the 1988 U.S. Olympic team.
In 1989, he went directly from the University of Michigan to the Angels' starting rotation. A solidly built southpaw, the intense Abbott won a dozen games and posted a 3.92 ERA in his rookie season. On the mound, he wore a right-hander's fielder's glove over the stump at the end of his right arm. After delivering a pitch and when completing his follow-through, he adroitly switched the glove to his left hand to be in a position to handle any balls batted back to him.
In 1991 he looked like one of the best young left-handers in the game after winning 18 games for the Angels while posting a 2.89 ERA. The Yankees traded their best prospect first baseman J.T. Snow and pitchers Russ Springer and Jerry Nielsen to California for Abbott. The media spotlight in New York City seemed to be on him daily. Abbott said he wanted to be like Nolan Ryan and not like Pete Gray, the one handed pitcher.
With the Yankees, Abbott had his ups and downs in two seasons in the Bronx. His record was 20-22. But he did have one especially shining moment. It came just six days after he had been touched for ten hits and seven runs in only three and a third innings against Cleveland. Facing Cleveland again, in the in the heat of the pennant race, Abbott tossed a 4-0 no-hitter against the Indians. "I remember it was a cloudy day. A day game, the kind of game I like to throw."

The day was drizzly and cold. The Yankees played against the Orioles for 15 innings, and the game was called finally because of rain. There were 55,351 fans around at the start and much less at the finish.
Many in the crowd had come out to see Cal Ripken, Jr. in his 126th game at Yankee Stadium, the most by an opposing player. His first game there was June 18, 1982.
There was an orange No. 8 painted on third base, as well as the Orioles' on-deck circle. Ripken was given the honor of throwing out the first pitch to Derek Jeter. Gifts presented to Ripken included a sterling silver press pin from Don Mattingly, a watch, an enlarged and framed copy of the commemorative ticket each fan was given reading "Farewell Cal Ripken.'' Black-and-white pictures of Ripken and Gehrig were on the tickets.
Ripken's pregame speech near home plate was staged near where Lou Gehrig, dying, said goodbye. "I know there will be many things that I'll miss about baseball, but coming to New York and playing in Yankee Stadium will always be at the top....

"I remember Graig Nettles making diving catches. I remember Louisiana Lightning I didn't like facing him that much. . . Willie Randolph and Dave Winfield. One of my all-time favorites at first base, Don Mattingly. It's really been a great run," Ripken said. "Let's get to the game."
The game was in Ripken's words: "Eerie. The weather, the gray sky, the wind, the rain. I was punched out four times and went 0-for-7, but I still had a lot of fun competing."