Monday, March 15, 2010

Rewriting History

A Review of The End of Baseball by Peter Schilling Jr.
By Chrissie Bonnes

(Editor's note: This was originally run a couple of years ago when Peter's book came out in hardback. I'm rerunning it because this week the book is being re-released in paperback. It deserves every sale it gets, and Twins Geek's readers deserve to know about it.)

I’m a rabid baseball fan only when one of my two favorite teams is playing, so I wondered if I was the best candidate to review Peter Schilling, Jr.’s historical baseball novel The End of Baseball. Luckily, Mr. Schilling worked himself into a hitter’s count by basing most of the action in the hometown of one of my two favorite teams, Philadelphia. He then proceeded to hit one out of the park.

The premise, according to the author, is based in fact. Bill Veeck, freshly wounded in World War II, had the brainstorm of buying a big league team and, to turn a profit, integrating baseball all at once rather than one player at a time. Schilling has Veeck take that action, buying the Philadelphia A’s and fielding a team composed solely of the best players from the Negro Leagues.

The fact that I am not the target market for this novel became clear early on during an action-movie-esque chapter describing a scouting expedition to a less than democratic island nation. Though it may be too early to discuss movie rights, it seems the role of the scout was written for Harrison Ford at his Indiana Jones best. Though the scout was slightly less dashing than Harrison Ford, it’ll be a few years before the movie version comes out, and Han Solo isn’t getting any younger.

My early reservations about plowing through a baseball book written by a man for male readers were quickly set aside. The detail paid to each character, making each unique, and making many both hero and villain, will mesmerize any reader. So often, an author is unable to separate his own voice from that of his characters’, resulting in a homogenous cast, providing pleasant enough company on the ride and trading clever barbs. Here, each character has a unique voice, his own character traits, and his own view of every situation.

For instance, we see a player walk the streets of Detroit with a cousin who witnessed the city’s race riots. As the events that shaped the player’s past and contributed to his determination become clear, he becomes so much more than one of the pitchers in the A’s rotation. This player has his own “Invincible” moment, when he “ran into himself,” in the form of a stickball game, Detroit versus Philadelphia. As if it wasn’t already obvious, the reader sees that the player knows this is bigger than him. And though this novel is not at all bogged down by stats, their importance to some players is vividly depicted: “His brain housed a twenty-story accounting firm of little Satchels, all of whom scribbled ledger after ledger of his statistics, feats, and – tucked in a black folder and filed away – his mistakes.”

Not that clever one-liners are absent. The sometimes tense, sometimes deathly serious moments are balanced by genuine humor. On baseball’s first ever Fan Appreciation Night, one of the A’s faithful is about to become the lucky recipient of myriad prizes bestowed upon him by a pair of bathing beauties. “There were cases of Ballantine Ale and Moxie soda pop, six giant cans of Hershey’s chocolate syrup, a box of Phillies blunt cigars, five robust hams, a midget bearing a gift certificate for forty gallons of gas, an Underwood typewriter...and, topping this all off, pushed in a wheelbarrow by a circus strongman, a pile of five hundred silver dollars, which rolled up between the leggy women.” Despite the eye-popping array of luxuries and beauty, all the fan can think is “…look at all that ham.”

But don’t worry; this is far from chick lit. The action keeps coming, and Schilling throws plenty of curves. Some twists in plot are subtly foreshadowed. Some, like the barstool that inexplicably appears in a street brawl, come out of left field (if you’ll pardon one more baseball pun). Some are introduced quickly and are either resolved just as quickly, or become a recurring theme. Some seem almost like an aside, or a cameo, emerging later as integral to the plot. Some are nothing more than red herring, leaving this reader scratching her head. The result is an unexpected, thoroughly enjoyable ride with a wholly satisfying but not predictable conclusion.

The title The End of Baseball is, of course, a common refrain from baseball purists. Interleague play? A wild card? It’s the end of baseball! While baseball may no longer be “America’s Pastime,” it has survived many changes and challenges. When a sportswriter puts forth the theory that “war years were somehow recorded differently, in a separate ledger perhaps, records marked with an asterisk to separate them from the legitimate numbers of the hallowed greats,” readers will recall asterisk posters in the stands during the San Francisco Giants’ games last season (not to mention the earlier asterisk after the number 61). Similarly, when a sportswriter in the novel “called on Congress” to mediate an injustice, perceived or actual, readers will be reminded of current subpoenas and testimony on Capitol Hill. The fan can only hope that fears of “The End of Baseball” are again unfounded.

Though baseball fans will certainly love this book, particularly for the edge-of-seat, heart-pounding descriptions of on-field action, non-baseball fans will love the vivid imagery, the rich character depictions, and the reactions of those characters watching and listening to those same pitches and innings.

Chrissie Bonnes, aka The Voice of Reason, usually works more in the GameDay background, cooking for and cleaning up after the esteemed Editor and his children. But this one was right in her sweet spot. (Sorry. One more baseball pun.)

TwinsCentric Blog: Puzzling Contract

This is also published on the TwinsCentric Blog at

It’s getting to the point where it is becoming a crusade. I should probably do something about that.

We’ve seen the same scenario play out the past two weeks. The Twins offer a long-term contract to a popular player and are lauded by media and fans. The latest example, a five-year deal to Denard Span, was again roundly praised, despite it seemingly being a goofy contract for the team.

Is “goofy” too strong of a word? Let’s find out by playing out a scenario: what happens if the Twins DON’T offer this deal to Span? If they don’t do the deal, they can pay him almost whatever they want for the next two years. And for the three years after that, they can unilaterally renew his contract at the price an arbitrator sets.

I say "almost whatever they want" because there is a minimum and some precedent. This year and next year, Span would likely make about $1 million combined. Truth be told, he would probably make closer to $900,000 combined, but we’ll round up for the sake of argument.

In 2012, he would be up for arbitration for his first year. In arbitration, the player is paid a salary commensurate with his tenure in the big leagues and his performance. So let’s list the centerfielders who have tenure within a few years of Span and rank them by their OPS last year.

(OPS is On-base Plus Slugging percentage. It’s a REALLY good measure of a team’s ability to score runs. Since players also have those stats, it’s assumed it works well for them too. It also does a decent job of crediting (and comparing) both players who get on-base and players who hit for power.)

So here are the centerfielders, their tenure (expressed in "years.days"), their OPS, and how much they are making or have made in their first year of arbitration:

Matt KempLAD0.842 3.0494
Denard SpanMIN 0.8071.111
Shane Victorino PHI 0.803 4.092 3.125
Adam Jones BAL 0.792 2.139 TBD
Cody Ross FLA 0.79 4.058 2.22
Grady Sizemore CLE 0.788 5.056 3
Nate McLouth ATL/PIT 0.788 4.056 2
Curtis Granderson DET 0.78 4.077 3.5
Jacoby Ellsbury BOS 0.77 2.037 TBD
Dexter Fowler COL 0.77 1.027 TBD
Franklin Gutierrez SEA 0.764 3.08 2
Nyjer Morgan WAS/PIT 0.757 1.12 TBD
Michael Bourn HOU 0.738 3.028 2.4

First, you’ll notice that Span had a GREAT year last year as far as centerfielders go. He’s nearly at the top of the list, though he’s much closer to that bunch of guys behind him than the guy on top. You might also notice that very few guys with less than three years of service time currently have contracts that cover their arbitration years.

Based on this, how much would an arbitrator say you need to pay him? It looks to be around $3 million, maybe as much as $3.25M, right? Ok, let’s do the same thing for the second year of arbitration. This time I’ll leave off the guys who don’t have contracts yet:

Matt Kemp LAD 0.842 3.049 6.95
Denard Span MIN 0.807 1.111
Shane Victorino PHI 0.803 4.092 5
Cody Ross FLA 0.79 4.058 4.45
Grady Sizemore CLE 0.788 5.056 4.6
Nate McLouth ATL/PIT 0.788 4.056 4.5
Curtis Granderson DET 0.78 4.077 5.5
Franklin Gutierrez SEA 0.764 3.08 4
Again, the answer seems pretty clear: somewhere around $5 million. Let’s be generous and say $5.25 million

And for year three, here’s how things look:

Denard Span MIN 0.807 1.111
Shane Victorino PHI 0.803 4.092 7.5
Grady Sizemore CLE 0.788 5.056 5.6
Nate McLouth ATL/PIT 0.788 4.056 6.5
Curtis Granderson DET 0.78 4.077 8.25
Franklin Gutierrez SEA 0.764 3.08 5.5
This one is a little harder, but the $7.5 million that Victorino is making is a pretty good benchmark. We’ll run with that.

So if you add up those salaries, we can reasonably expect him to be paid $17 million over the next five years. That’s what happens if the Twins pay him on a year-by-year basis, making sure he continues to perform and stay healthy. Instead they handed him five years of guaranteed money for $16.5 million?

It’s like a bad informercial. Buy now and you can save $500,000? Really? Are operators standing by, too?

For some reason, long-term contracts equal success in everyone’s heads. It’s praised when it’s done for players like Span or for Joe Mays. More stunningly, it’s praised even after disasters like Joe Mays. But even for sure bets like Span, it doesn’t make sense unless there are some big savings involved.

And Span is a quality player. There has not been a more consistent supporter of Denard Span for the past 2+ years, than me. (Don’t believe me? Check this out. I was a voice in the wilderness, gently mocked for suggesting that Span had turned a corner two years ago.)

I believe Denard Span has been an absolute force. I expect him to continue to be a force. His skill set (with the possible exception of his speed) should hold up reasonably well over the next five years. I believe he’ll be able to handle the temptations that come along with long-term security. And by all accounts, including my personal experience, he’s a legitimately good guy who deserves every good thing that comes his way.

But it’s still goofy to give a player a five-year deal when you have the option of instead giving him five one-year deals. And that’s exactly what the Twins just did. The only reason you do that is if you get significant discounts back in return, and the Twins didn’t.

So what’s going on? I asked several people this weekend, and here are the theories I heard:

1. The Twins got an option year to buy out Span’s first year of free agency as part of the deal. It should be pointed out that it isn’t a cheap option ($9M) and so it’s not a slam dunk they’ll exercise it. But it is a benefit.

2. Mr. Rihanna (Matt Kemp) scares the heck out of them. He may try to force the market much higher though arbitration. There is a benefit in having some cost certainty, in protecting the team from a skyrocketing market.

3. Similar to #2, only ALL teams are worried. MLB teams are worried in general about players driving up salaries through the arbitration process and so there is some pressure to sign deals like this even if there isn’t much cost savings.

4. The Pohlads are positioning the team for a sale in a few years, and these kind of deals make a sale more possible.

They’re all nice theories, and none of them mean a thing because I didn’t ask the people I should have asked – the Twins. I’ll see what I can do in that regard later this week, before this becomes any more of a crusade.

I had a fantastic time at the TwinsCentric Twins Viewing Party on Saturday, with one exception.

  • We had a very good crowd. Fifty-five people entered the raffle, and we had at least another 10-15 who were there but didn’t want to be in the raffle. That makes 65-70 people, some who came up from Iowa and even from Chicago.

  • It started at 11 AM and there were still people there when I left at 6:00, so I'm pretty sure others had a good time too.

  • I got to meet a ton of people, some old friends and some new. I’m hesitant to try and list all the writers there because I really don’t want to leave anyone out, but I’ll take a shot: Seth, Nick, Parker, Doogie, Phil MIller, Karlee, Babs, Josh, Andrew, Eric, Scott, k-bro, Roger, Emily and Betsy. And PMac was there in spirit, or rather spirits; he called and bought us a round of shots. Again, if I'm forgetting to mention someone, I apologize, especially becaue I made everyone wear nametags.

  • The only bummer was a Twins loss. To the Phillies. My wife's favorite team. I only have one bet on any spring training game and this was it. Now she can make me watch (500) Days of Summer. I'm blaming you, Matt Tolbert.

  • Thanks to everyone for showing up and thanks to Major's in Apple Valley for the cheap beer and eats. They were very kind and accomodating. The consensus opinion was that we should do this several times per year, and I agree. Of course, that's the consensus opinion every spring, but I'm hopeful that more places like Major's will step up to sponsor us, and we'll do as many as one per month.