Murray Chass: Reality is not my friend

August 8th, 2006 → 11:00 am @

On those days in which Murray Chass isn’t whining about the fact that George Steinbrenner won’t talk to him, he’s apparently trying to see if anyone at The New York Times is paying attention to anything he writes.

Take today’s piece on the Red Sox. As far as I can tell, the point is that the Red Sox should have a “commanding” lead in the AL East. Why? Because the Yankees have been “bruised and bloodied,” while the Red Sox, “until catcher Jason Varitek had knee surgery last week, had not dealt with the extended absence of an everyday player.” Which is true…so long as you don’t count center and right fielders as everyday players: Coco Crisp landed on the DL on April 11, and Trot Nixon has been out of commission with a strained right bicep since late last month. (Wily Mo Pena, the team’s fourth outfielder, was also on the DL for about three weeks earlier this year.) Still, at least the Sox have had a healthy pitching staff…except for Keith Foulke, Mike Timlin, Lenny DiNardo, Tim Wakefield, David Wells, and Matt Clement, all of whom are on or have been on the DL. (Clement and DiNardo are both on the 60-day list, while Wells has been on the 15-day list three separate times already.) In fact, the Red Sox have put a player on the DL 15 times thus far this year, compared to 11 for the Yankees.

This kind of fact-challenged pique is Chass’s specialty. Almost exactly a year ago, he directed his whining toward Carlos Delgado, who had the nerve to sign with a team other than the Mets after the 2004 season; that piece was headlined “Delgado Gets an E-3 for Picking the Marlins.” “The man made a mistake,” Chass wrote. “It’s that simple. Carlos Delgado said in January that he signed with Florida rather than the Mets because he thought the Marlins had a better chance of going to the World Series. He thought wrong.” On September 15, about a month after Chass’s column ran, the Marlins were .5 games behind the wild-card leaders and 6.5 games ahead of the Mets. (A Marlins collapse in the season’s final two weeks meant the teams ended up with identical 83-79 records, 7 games back of the division-winning Braves and 5.5 games behind the wild-card winning Astros. Using WARP, Delgado was worth about three more wins than the collection of folks the Mets had manning first…which still wouldn’t have been enough to propel the Mets into the playoffs.)

Any columnist can state the obvious, so Chass shouldn’t be knocked for telling us that teams would be better with a a two-time All-Star and three-time Silver Slugger winner closing in on 400 home runs than without him: “[Delgado’s] bat would have looked good in the middle of the Mets’ batting order. And with his bat absent from the Florida lineup, the Marlins might have had an offensive shortage.” And it’s a columnist’s perogative to ignore his pre-season predictions while chastising players for theirs. (Last year, Chass had the Twins winning the AL Central and the World Series-winning White Sox coming in third; he picked the wild-card winning, NL champion Astros to come in fourth in the NL Central. This year, he ranked the Detroit Tigers behind the Twins, White Sox, and Indians in the AL Central.)

Chass can, however, be knocked for ignoring reality. Columnists at the Times are given lots of latitude (most the time, anyway). At what point do columns that are contradicted by facts become an issue? Keep reading the paper’s sports section to find out…

Post Categories: Murray Chass & New York Times & Sports Reporters

Trade Deadline Edition 2006: It cost a lot to win, and even more to lose

July 30th, 2006 → 2:26 pm @

A year ago at this time, Boston was embroiled in what seemed to be an annual trade-deadline soap opera. In 2004, it was Nomar Garciaparra and Derek Lowe who were rumored to be on their way out of town; Nomar, of course, was actually traded to the Cubs. Last year, Manny Ramirez was either demanding a trade, or asking not to be traded, or refusing to play, or telling the world nothing was wrong.

This year, things are much quieter…at least on the media front. One big reason for that is the fact that for the first time in decades, Peter Gammons isn’t burning up the phone lines. (Last year, even as he was being inducted into the writers wing of the Hall of Fame, Gammons was perhaps the best source of information about all the various discussions going on around the league.) Another big reason is that, in the wake of last winter’s off-field turmoil, the Red Sox have kept a much tighter lid on their public relations operation. (Think about the fact that the first anyone heard about the Red Sox signing David Ortiz, Coco Crisp, and Josh Beckett to contract extensions was when the team held press conferences to announce the deals.)

Over the last several days, word about possible Red Sox deals has heated up, with much of it coming from ESPN’s Buster Olney, who has said the Sox offered up Coco Crisp in return for White Sox starter Mark Buehrle, or that they’re looking to trade Mark Loretta and move Dustin Pedroia to the bigs. As I’ve written before, I have a huge amount of respect for Olney, but in this case, I’m not inclined to rely on him as a prime source of information. As Olney himself writes, “I wish I knew all the details of what the Red Sox are planning, all the tentacles, because the bits and pieces are fascinating.” If the Red Sox aren’t leaking–and I really doubt they are–these bits and pieces are coming from other GMs, and pretty much every team in the American League has good reason to try to stir up some trouble in Boston.

That said, I would bet that most of the team is available for the right price. Schilling isn’t going anywhere, and neither is Manny. Papelbon, Hansen, Delcarmon, and Lester are also probably untouchable, and it’s unlikely Jason Varitek or Tim Wakefield would be put on the block. Kevin Youkilis is so relatively inexpensive, and so unlikely to get comparable value in return, that it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which he’d be on his way out of town. But there were trades on the table for Trot Nixon this past offseason, and his declining power numbers and impending free agency likely increase the chance that he’s seen as expendable. (Of course, those same facts also mean his value is probably lower than it has been in some time.) Everyone else is probably fair game as well…and we probably have no idea about what’s actually going on. (Last year, with my retrospective awareness of what had been discussed and what had almost occured, I was struck by two things: the fact that very few trades are for “name” players, and the fact that so little of what’s discussed by the Sox’s baseball operations department ever makes its way into print.)

In other news, there are reports that the Yankees will send their top draft pick in 2005–20-year-old shrotstop C.J. Henry–along with a reliever to the Phillies in return for Bobby Abreu and Cory Lidle. From the Red Sox’s perspective, this wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. The Yankees’ four World Series titles between 1996 and 2000 were won on the backs of players who came up through the Yankees’ farm system during between 1990 and 1993, the time during which George “Instant Gratification” Steinbrenner was banned from baseball. (Jorge Posada was drafted in 1990; Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte signed as an amateur free agents in 1990 and 1991, respectively; Bernie Williams’s first year in the majors was 1991; and Derek Jeter was drafted in 1992.) It seems unlikely all these players would have been in New York had Steinbrenner, who always wants to win right now and worry about tomorrow when it comes, been in control of the team. Abreu and Lidle would definitely make the Yankees better in the immediate short-term. But, Abreu–like Randy Johnson and Jason Giambi and Alex Rodriguez and Johnny Damon and Carl Pavano–would cost a boatload of money and decrease New York’s flexibility going forward. And the loss of cheap, young talent could very well burn the Yankees in the future.

That’s a lesson the Red Sox don’t need to learn. Theo Epstein has shown a consistent desire to hold on to Boston’s young talent. Even so, it’s worth taking a look at what’s been lost (or almost lost) these last few years. The Sox shipped Matt Murton to Chicago as part of the Nomar trade, and this year Murton’s put up a .321 batting average and a .907 OPS in 51 games for the Cubs. (With those numbers, Murton would lead the Sox in BA and be third in OPS.) And had the Manny for A-Rod deal gone through, Jon Lester would have gone to the Rangers.

Without a doubt, there’ll be a lot going down in the next 25-and-a-half hours. And we probably won’t hear about it until those deals come round.

Post Categories: Grateful Dead lyrics & Peter Gammons & Sports Reporters & trade deadline

Joe O’Donnell and WEEI

July 10th, 2006 → 10:44 am @

This morning, WEEI’s “Dennis and Callahan” (with Steve DeOssie sitting in for John Dennis) had Boston Culinary Group head Joe O’Donnell on as a guest. The subject was O’Donnell and Steve Karp’s bid for the Red Sox in 2001.

DeOssie and Callahan were pushing O’Donnell about a section in my book in which I describe a trip O’Donnell and John Henry took to the Boston waterfront in January 2002, after the Red Sox had agreed to sell the team to Henry and Tom Werner but before their ownership had been finalized. At the time, O’Donnell and Henry were discussing joining forces. The section reads as follows:

At around one in the morning, O’Donnell suggested he and Karp drive Henry out to a waterfront location where they wanted to build a new ballpark for the team. Henry was sufficiently concerned about the prospect of an after-midnight trip to Boston’s waterfront that he called [financial advisor] David Ginsberg to tell him where he was headed, and with whom.

“Joe played me recordings of voicemails from the house speaker, the mayor, and another who were reacting to Joe’s losing out on the Red Sox,” Henry wrote in an email he sent to his lawyers and several of his partners that morning at 3:05 am. “He talked a lot about the sports media and the Herald being in his corner or something to that effect.” Henry told how O’Donnell had asked that he be made managing partner “if something happened to you.” “That,” Henry wrote, “was a little scary.”

DeOssie and Callahan pushed O’Donnell to sue (either me or John Henry) for libel or slander. O’Donnell, to his credit, didn’t take the bait. The hosts also kept returning to the fact that there are sections in which I recount conversations O’Donnell participated in but that I had never spoken with him.

A couple of things worth pointing out.

• I did, as O’Donnell readily acknowledged, make many efforts to get in touch with both him and Steve Karp. This is made clear in the book: “Neither O’Donnell nor Karp responded to repeated verbal and written requests for comment for this book, although close associates of both men did speak to me on background.” What’s more, O’Donnell acknowledged that even he couldn’t argue with many of the conversations I did recount: “Basically, that’s all true,” he said this morning.

• DeOssie and Callahan also ridiculed the notion that O’Donnell had the support of the local media (this after saying on air, “O’Donnell’s good, huh?”). But as O’Donnell himself said, “[Former Boston Globe columnist] Willy McDonough, who was a lifelong friend of mine, who was a good friend, was relentless in his support of Steve and me.” O’Donnell also said that he was good friends with Pat Purcell, the publisher of the Herald. That’s almost exactly what I wrote: that O’Donnell and Karp, as local bidders with longstanding ties to the community, had the support of many Boston-area columnists and that some people “in Boston media circles” thought Purcell might be hard on the Henry-Werner bid because he “was upset about the prospect of the investment of The New York Times Company, which owns The Boston Globe.”

• Later in the show, DeOssie and Callahan claimed the book said O’Donnell and Karp did not have enough money to buy the team; that’s not true. What the book does say is that lawyers involved in the sale, associates of O’Donnell and Karp, and Red Sox officials all felt that O’Donnell and Karp were not willing to put up enough of their own money to make a sale to them viable. (As I note, O’Donnell and Karp are reported to have a combined net worth of almost $2 billion.) As O’Donnell himself said on WEEI, “Steve and I, the night before the decision was to be made, Steve and I sat in a room alone around one o’clock in the morning. The real breaker in that deal, which made it tremendously clear to me and to Steve, was when [John] Harrington extended the contract to [Fenway concessionaire] Aramark for 10 more years, the food service contract. I’m not in the garbage business. We had planned that in all our numbers and we had already made those plans.”

• Finally, much is made of the fact that supposedly John Henry told me that O’Donnell and Karp had threatened his life. Nowhere in my book is anything like this printed. I do quote an email, which I take pains to say Henry sent “to his lawyers and several of his partners.” I make absolutely no reference to where I got that email, and there are no quotes from John Henry. What’s more, O’Donnell verifies virtually everything in that section (except for the sentiments expressed in the email). As he said, “When I look back on it, [Henry’s] a guy from out of town, he knows that I know everybody…he looked at me as a guy that’s connected. You know, my mother’s Italian, I never thought I was connected, you know, to the goombahs. He called me and said do you mind if I bring Ginsberg…and I said no, you can’t bring him.”

I have to give Joe O’Donnell some credit. Despite the fact that less than two pages in a 400-plus page book are being distorted in a way to gin up controversy, he tried, for the most part, to avoid adding fuel to the fire. Still, there is one thing I want to clarify about his remarks as they related to me: “First of all, this guy, Mnookin, is that his name? He called a couple of times to ask to speak off the record. I didn’t respond to him, and neither did Karp.” Not true — although I did offer, in emails, in telephone messages, and through intermediaries, to talk with him on-the-record, off-the-record, or on background, whichever he prefered. (O’Donnell also refered to me as “sketchy” and “this kid.” That is so wicked harsh!)

One other comment he did make — “If you want to sell a lot of books, i supposed you can put the other spin on it” — should actually be made in reference to the coverage of the book, not the book itself. Indeed, it’ll be interesting to see how his appearance this morning plays out.

Post Categories: Joe O'Donnell & John Harrington & John Henry & Sports Reporters & WEEI

Outtakes: Terry Francona on Keith Foulke, Johnny Damon, and Theo Epstein

July 8th, 2006 → 8:19 am @

This is the seventh in a series of outtakes from interviews done for Feeding the Monster, to be published on July 11 by Simon & Schuster. This interview with Terry Francona took place on January 4, 2006, when Francona was recovering from offseason knee surgery. (Theo Epstein was officially re-hired by the Red Sox on January 19.) Read the book for exclusive details on Francona’s hiring following the Red Sox’s collapse in the 2003 playoffs, his take on the 2005 trade deadline controversy with Manny Ramirez, and his reaction to winning the World Series.

On the departure of Theo Epstein: I don’t think I’d say I was nervous or anything, I usually think I tend to believe that things work out for the best and there’s reasons things happened and stuff like that. But not knowing [how the general manager situation would be resolved], I think the word I’d use is unsettling. When there’s change you’re always a bit unsettled, but as far as myself I’ve been around this game a long time and I don’t have trouble getting along with people, so things usually work out.

On former assistant general manager Josh Byrnes, who was named general manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks last fall: Josh was a real stabilizing force in that office. He’s somebody I really looked up to a lot. I say that in past tense. I still do, but he doesn’t work here. He’s a great guy. Great head in his shoulders, and when he spoke he was guaranteed one person was listening and that was me. Then we lost Peter Woodfork [who followed Byrnes to Arizona], who was also down there, so you know you lose three people: Theo obviously, his name was out there because he ran the show, but it was the whole office that worked together. You lose three of the guys down there. That’s tough. From where I sit, I know they’ve taken some shots for hiring Ben [Cherington] and Jed [Hoyer as co-general managers] and the two-headed whatever-you-call-it, but I’m glad they did because I think there’s a lot of stability. Things are getting done like they always have. Those guys all work together and they still are. They’re a couple of guys short right now, which I’m sure is making their man-hours a little bit more, but things are getting done like they always do and I’m comfortable with that.

On the attention that comes with working in Boston: I just think its part of what we deal with here. There’s a lot of passion, there’s a lot of interest. The media, their job, I guess, is to explain to the masses how they view things. How they view things – that’s what it is – it’s how they view things, it’s not necessarily always correct. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes you disagree but that’s how they view it, and that’s their right. And again in a place like Boston where there is a lot of passion and a lot of interest, you can get some interesting articles.

On the 2004 offseason versus the 2005 offseason: Well, it is a more normal winter. Last year wasn’t normal for anybody. Everybody was making appearances and talking about how good we were and it was a big love-fest. This is a little bit more normal. Last winter was a little more fun. Winning brings that. This has been a unique winter here for us, a lot of things have happened: Theo and Johnny Damon and all kind of things happened. So, like you said, anything that happens here is big news, and when it is big news it’s real big news.

On Johnny Damon going to the Yankees: You know what, you know it’s a possibility that a guy can leave, because he’s a free agent he has that right. It’s hard because I don’t think I hid the fact of how much I respected and liked Johnny, but there comes a point when ownership…that’s why I really try to almost stay out of it, because it’s not my money. And you start talking about 40, 50, 60 million dollars – holy smokes. That’s up to ownership and front office to make those decisions. I’m allowed my opinion but I’ll tell you, when you start talking about those kind of millions of dollars, I don’t want to hold ownership or front office hostage by saying things, that’s just not right. The reason these guys have gotten to where they are in life is because they know how to do business. So, you got to sit back and respect that a little bit.

On Keith Foulke: I don’t think [his 2005 season] had anything to do with focus. Foulke comes in to spring training and his knee hurts. That’s not focus. He threw a lot of innings in the playoffs [in 2004]. Sometimes guys maybe achieved some things maybe their bodies really shouldn’t allow them to achieve. And they pay the price. And Foulke was unbelievable. We don’t win [the World Series] without him. It was unreal. He didn’t get the most valuable player, but it was as valuable a contribution as you could find. He was unbelievable. Our whole bullpen was fantastic. It was incredible. It was awesome. Striking out Tony Clark [to end Game Six of the American League Championship Series in Yankee Stadium]: It was awesome.

Post Categories: 2004 Playoffs & Feeding the Monster Outtakes & Red Sox & Sports Reporters & Terry Francona & Theo Epstein

Players union fights for right to drive bus off cliff

June 22nd, 2006 → 4:54 pm @

In an article in today’s Globe, Paxton Crawford explains why he doesn’t want to discuss his first-person account, printed in ESPN The Magazine, detailing steroid, HGH, and speed use while playing with the Red Sox in 2000 and 2001. (The article is available online, but only if you’re a subscriber to ESPN Insider.) “I thought it was a one-time story deal, bro,” Crawford tells the Globe‘s Gordon Edes. “If any other reporter called, I was not interested.”

Paxton’s use of the word “deal” is intriguing. Was he saying that he got paid for the ESPN piece?* Perhaps, and as far as journalistic ethics goes, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that: the subject of first-person “as told to’s” are not infrequently paid for their efforts. Or maybe, after a taste of the limelight, he wanted the world’s attention focused back on him, even if it was only for a moment and even if it was because he was telling the world he was a cheat.

There’s powerful incentive for both current and past major leaguers to stay silent about what they’ve seen or know; breaking omerta results in a lifetime banishment from the only fraternity many of them have ever known. (Off the top of my head, Ken Caminiti, Jose Canseco, and Jeremy Giambi are the only players or former players who’ve publicly admitted knowingly using steroids without being caught.) But Crawford’s story raises the specter of any number of fringe former major leaguers deciding they have nothing to lose (and perhaps some spending cash to gain) by coming clean.

There’s a fear within baseball that these trickling revelations will start a witchhunt, and indeed, there’s a guilty-until-proven-innocent attitude that’s begun to attach itself to anyone who’s had a breakout year or one or two seasons that seem statistically aberrant. But the only reason anyone’s interested in Paxton Crawford’s story is that pretty much everyone–fans, the media, the feds, Congress–knows the current testing program, while better than nothing, is embarrassingly porous. If there’s only the slimmest of chances juicers will be caught, the thinking goes, perhaps the fear of a future unmasking at the hands of some dude who spent a day in the bigs will keep folks from shooting up the latest designer steroid. One obvious way to deal with this would be for MLB and the players union to actually implement a real testing program–one that can’t be beaten by anyone who knows how to read.

Right now, that doesn’t seem likely, mainly because the power-drunk players union refuses to allow blood testing (or actual random testing, or storing of samples) because any of those steps would be an “invasion of privacy.” That’s a load of crap. Playing professional baseball is not a right afforded to citizens under the Constitution; it’s a privilege. Workplaces implement all sorts of policies–regarding drug testing or dress codes or proper language or decorum–that aren’t (and can’t be) mandated by the government. Unless the players union takes off its blinders and starts to see the big picture, a lot of its members are going to find themselves in a world of hurt.

* EDIT: Amy K. Nelson, a veteran reporter for ESPN and the writer who worked with Paxton on the story in ESPN The Magazine, wrote to say Paxton was not paid for sharing his story. I did not contact Nelson prior to posting this item. Even though I didn’t see anything wrong with the possibility of someone being paid to collaborate on an “as told to” story, I should have made an effort to contact Nelson and ESPN.

Post Categories: Amy K. Nelson & Baseball & Daisuke Matsuzaka & ESPN The Magazine & Murray Chass & Paxton Crawford & Players Union & Red Sox & Sports Reporters & Steroids

Of course, in his country it’s also okay to set the help on fire

June 21st, 2006 → 5:39 pm @

After White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen called Chicago Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti a “piece of shit” and a “fucking fag,” Guillen justified his use of the homophobic slur to Greg Couch this way: “I don’t have anything against those people. In my country, you can call someone something like that and it is not the same as it is in this country.”

It’s true: apparently the rules for how to behave in polite society are different in Venezuala. Like the time Guillen’s friend Ugueth Urbina was charged with attempted murder after purportedly attacking some of his farmhands with a machete and dousing them with gasoline. Guillen explained that incident by saying, “Ugie’s reputation is he overreacts a little, not only in the United States, but also in Venezuela.”

Post Categories: homophobia & Ozzie Guillen & Sports Reporters & Ugueth Urbina

Rudy Seanez, the Boston Red Sox, and process versus results

June 19th, 2006 → 1:24 am @

In the bottom of the seventh inning of tonight’s Braves-Red Sox game, Rudy Seanez came in to pitch to Jeff Francoeur with two on, two out, and the Sox leading 3-2—and Francoeur hit Seanez’s first pitch over the left-field wall to give the Braves a two run lead. Which means Seanez screwed up, right? Well, not exactly. Jason Varitek gave a target on the lower left-hand corner of the strike zone, and Seanez hit his spot almost perfectly with a nice slider…or he would have, anyway, if Francoeur hadn’t deposited the ball into the stands.

There’s plenty to second-guess here, to be sure. Francoeur is a free swinger—he has only five walks on the year, to go along with 57 strikeouts, 15 home runs, and 52 RBIs—and Seanez’s pitch was obviously hittable. But with two men on, the Red Sox didn’t want to give Francoeur a 1-0 count, on which he’s hitting .481 this season. And Seanez didn’t throw a hanging slider or leave a pitch out over the heart of the plate—it just nipped the outside corner.

Francouer’s 3-run shot certainly won’t be one of the turning points in the season. The Sox scored six two-out runs in the eighth and went on to win the game, 10-7. And Seanez’s role in the game probably won’t be remembered for long, either, except for those fans who’ve already decided they hate the man. But it is a good example of how baseball offers up numerous daily illustrations of how a good process doesn’t always lead to good results. The Red Sox—with a front office that has a well thought out reasons for virtually every decision they make—offer almost daily illustrations of this. After the 2002 season, the Sox let Cliff Floyd walk rather than pay him the eight or so million he likely would have gotten in arbitration; then, in a move that was criticized at the time, they signed Jeremy Giambi, Bill Mueller, David Ortiz, and Todd Walker for a combined $8.8 million. Before this season, the Sox traded Bronson Arroyo to the Reds for hard-hitting outfielder Wily Mo Pena. That move was, for the most part, treated as good news: with the Red Sox’s outfield in flux, the injury-prone, left-handed Trot Nixon manning right, and the need to start turning over a veteran team that was in danger of rapidly aging, picking up a 24-year old power-hitting outfielder who had a couple of years left before he reached free agency made a lot of sense, especially when the cost was a pitcher who threw up a 4.52 ERA last year. Of course, now that Pena’s on the DL, Arroyo’s 8-3 with a 2.51 ERA, and the Red Sox starting rotation appears to be in danger of falling apart, that move is drawing plenty of criticism.

Hindight, of course, is 20-20, and baseball fans (and sportswriters) have a rich history of knee-jerk reactions in response to whatever happened last night (or last inning). But indulging that tendency, especially in regard to a Red Sox team owned by John Henry and Tom Werner and run by Theo Epstein, would mean missing out on a lot of opportunities to think about and learn why a given decision was made. During spring training this year, Epstein told me the reason he loved working for Henry was that both men believed in making decisions based on carefully articulated processes. That doesn’t mean never paying players more than they might be worth according to a strict statistical analysis—there are some decisions that need to be made for stability, or because of excessive turnover. But it does mean coming up with a plan and sticking to it. And if the team decides certain players are only worth risking three years on, well, that’s what they Sox will offer.

“It doesn’t always work out perfectly,” Epstein said that day. “That’s life. But we believe that if we come up with a plan and stick to it, it’ll work out more often than it doesn’t.”

There’s more–lots more–about the Red Sox’s management philosophy and all the roster moves and in-game decisions of the last several years in Feeding the Monster, out July 11.

Post Categories: Baseball & David Ortiz & Jason Varitek & Red Sox ownership & Sports Reporters & Theo Epstein