Baseball’s Hall of Fame changes its election procedures (again)

Some observations on the revised election procedures for the Veterans Committee…

In case you were wondering why the procedures were revised, it’s fairly simple — the Hall wants more players elected.  It needs more people traveling to Cooperstown for Hall of Fame weekend.  Darren Rovell wrote about this, and that was prior to this weekend’s paltry attendance at the induction ceremony.

Since the BBWAA is struggling to elect more than one player per year (although I think both Bert Blyleven and Roberto Alomar will be elected this winter), the Hall needs the Veterans Committee to elect some players to excite fans of a certain age.  It hasn’t been easy.

The previous iteration of the VC (which Chris Jaffe refers to as the “Joe Morgan SuperFriends Committee” ) managed to elect no post-1960 players in three years of trying.  Now the VC has morphed into the following:

There will now be one composite ballot consisting of managers, umpires, executives and long-retired players divided into three eras, rather than four categories with separate electorates.

The “categories with separate electorates” voting resulted in the election by the VC of no “modern” players (courtesy of the SuperFriends, as noted above).  The only modern-day players elected were those few selected by the BBWAA.  The only player actually enshrined courtesy of any VC committee was Joe Gordon.  Gordon is one of two players elected by the VC in the last decade (Bill Mazeroski was elected in 2001).

The VC setup did produce several other Hall of Famers — two managers (Billy Southworth and Dick Williams), two owners (Barney Dreyfuss and Walter O’Malley) and former commissioner Bowie Kuhn.  Thus, the past three years of voting by the VC resulted in six new Hall of Famers, only one of whom (Williams) was still alive to accept the honor.

So what are the new divisions/categories?

The new divisions are as follows: Pre-Integration (1871-1946), Golden (1947-1972) and Expansion (1973-1989 for players; 1973-present for managers, umpires and executives)…

…One election will be held each year at the annual Winter Meetings, but the eras rotate, resulting in one era per year. The Expansion era will be first, followed by the Golden Era election in 2011 and the Pre-Integration Era election in 2012.

The new rules take effect immediately and will be put into practice at the first election at this year’s Winter Meetings, to be held on December 5, 2010, in Orlando, Fla., with the Expansion Era up first.

Oy.

First, who thought it would be a good idea to call one of the divisions the “Golden” era?  What a way to sell your current on-field product, guys.  It’s a sop to some of the baby boomers, and certain syrupy writers, I guess.

Then there is the actual dividing line between the categories.  Why does the “Expansion” era start in 1973, rather than in real expansion years like 1961 or 1968?  What is so special about 1973?  It was the first year of the DH.  Maybe that’s what it is.  Or maybe…

Maybe it’s because George Steinbrenner bought the New York Yankees in 1973.

I have to say that I’m not completely sure I’m going to buy the Big Stein Line of Demarcation theory, if only because I’m not sure Steinbrenner’s election would automatically result in overflow crowds venturing to Cooperstown next July.  However, let’s take a look at a potential ballot.  Remember, the “Expansion” era is up first, so The Boss is up for election immediately.  There will be 12 names on the expansion era ballot, made up of players, managers, umpires, and executives.

I figure that around eight of them will be players.  If I were to pick the top eight eligibles among this group of players, the list might look like this:

Tommy John
Bobby Grich
Darrell Evans
Ted Simmons
Buddy Bell
Bobby Bonds
Sal Bando
Jose Cruz, Sr.

I think it will be hard for any of these players to get 75% of the vote from a committee of 16 people.  John would have the best shot, and Grich likely would get serious consideration (at least, he should).

Then we have the non-players who would be on the ballot.  Bobby Cox and Lou Piniella would not be eligible for consideration this year.  Who would?  Steinbrenner, of course.  Charlie Finley.  Ewing Kauffman.  Marvin Miller.  John Schuerholz.  Davey Johnson.  Allan H. Selig…

That’s right.  Bud is a potential candidate.  I don’t think he’ll be on the ballot this time, but just wait three years.  Just wait.

If I had to guess at four non-players on the ballot, the spots would be taken by Steinbrenner, Miller, Kauffman…and Billy Martin.  Imagine the press if Steinbrenner and Martin are enshrined at the same time.

So will the VC elect anyone this winter?  Probably.  There is one potential hitch, though.  As Tom Tango observes, past iterations of the VC mandated that each voter could only vote for up to four candidates, making it very hard, if not impossible, for an individual to get 75% of the vote.  That will be particularly true for a 12-man ballot (as opposed to the 10-man ballot for the Golden and Pre-Integration eras).

If instead each candidate gets an “up or down” vote, with no further restrictions for those on the committee, then I think there could be three or four candidates elected.  If not?

Then it’s Steinbrenner, and nobody else.  Somewhere, Frank Constanza weeps.

Examining the college baseball “bubble” with one week to go

This will be a huge week in the college baseball world, obviously, with conference tournament action all over the country (along with some key regular season games in the Pac-10, which does not have a league tournament).  I decided to break down the potential field and see what teams are in, what teams are out, and what teams have work to do.  Admittedly, I’m not the only person who does this — you can read fine efforts from the folks at Baseball America and Yahoo! Sports, just to name two — but I’m the only person who will do it on this blog.  So there.

I’m going to approach this from the point of view of a fan of a “bubble” team who wants to know the ideal scenario by which his team can make the field, by the way.  The Citadel, while not a true “lock”, is probably safe at this point (and well it should be). However, I would like to see any potential roadblocks to the NCAAs removed.  In other words, I’m for the chalk.

RPI numbers mentioned below are as of May 23 and are from Boyd Nation’s website.  For the uninitiated, the regionals include 64 teams, 30 automatic qualifiers (by winning their respective league bids) and 34 at-large selections.  Three leagues do not hold post-season tournaments, so their regular season champs get the auto bid. Several smaller conferences have already held their post-season events and so we know what teams will be representing those leagues.

There are 15 leagues that will definitely only have one team in the field, the so-called “one-bid leagues”.  Dartmouth, Bethune-Cookman, Bucknell, and San Diego have already qualified from four of these conferences.  The other eleven leagues are the America East, Atlantic 10, CAA, Horizon, MAAC, MAC, NEC, OVC, SWAC, Summit, and WAC.  That leaves 49 spots for the other 15 leagues.

(There are also a few independents, along with the members of the Great West, a league that does not get an automatic bid, but none of those teams are serious candidates to make a regional.)

There are several leagues that will also be “one-bid” conferences, unless the regular season champion doesn’t win the conference tournament, and even then the favorite might not be good enough to get an at-large bid anyway.  Bubble teams should definitely be rooting for the top seed in these leagues, just to make sure no spots are “stolen”.  These leagues are as follows:

– Atlantic Sun – Florida Gulf Coast University dominated this conference.  With an RPI of 40, FGCU probably stands a decent (not great) shot at getting a bid even if it loses in the A-Sun tourney.  This is unfamiliar ground for the Eagles, as the A-Sun tourney will be their first post-season experience in Division I.

If you’re wondering why you have never heard of Florida Gulf Coast University, it’s because the school (located in Fort Myers) has only existed since 1997.  The baseball team has only been around since 2003, first as a D-2 program and now at D-1.  It’s an amazing story, really; there are a few more details to be found here.  It just goes to show you how many good baseball players there are in Florida, and for that matter how many young people there are in Florida (FGCU has an enrollment of over 11,000).

– Big 10 – Michigan has an RPI of 65, which isn’t really that great, and didn’t even win the regular season title (Minnesota, with a losing overall record, did).  It’s barely possible the selection committee will throw a bone to the all-powerful Big 10 and give a “snow bid” to a second team from the league, but I doubt it.   Incidentally, the Big 10 tournament will be held in Columbus, but Ohio State did not qualify for the event.

– Big South – Coastal Carolina will almost certainly be a national seed.  If the Chanticleers win the league tourney, the Big South is probably a one-bid league. Liberty has an RPI of 51 and has beaten no one of consequence.  Bubble teams should definitely root for CCU.

– Conference USA – Rice will be in the tournament.  The only other team with a shot at a potential at-large bid is Southern Mississippi, but with an RPI of 67, it’s likely the Eagles need to win the C-USA tourney.  Otherwise, it could be bad news for the Minnesota Vikings.

– Missouri Valley – Wichita State will be the top seed at the MVC tourney, tying for the regular season title with Illinois State but holding the tiebreaker.  If the Shockers (RPI of 56) don’t win the league tournament, they could get an at-large bid, but I don’t see it. Still, you have to watch out, given the tradition of Wichita State, that the committee doesn’t give a “legacy” bid.

– Southland – There are three teams (Texas State, Southeastern Louisiana, and Northwestern State) that are semi-viable at-large candidates, but I suspect all of them really need the auto bid.  Texas State won the regular season title, has an RPI of 50, and probably would be the one best positioned for an at-large spot, but I don’t think that would happen. Bubble teams should pull for Texas State anyway, just to make sure.  Southeastern Louisiana has an RPI of 48 but dropped all three games of its final regular season series to Northwestern State, at home, and thus finished third in the league.

Let’s look at the remaining “mid-majors”:

– Big East – Louisville should be a national seed.  Connecticut has had a great year and may wind up hosting (but as a 2 seed).  Pittsburgh doesn’t have a great RPI (53), but has a fine overall record, will get the benefit of the doubt for its power rating because it is a northern school, and is probably in good shape.  The Big East appears to be a three-bid league.  St. John’s has a good record but an RPI of 74.

– Big West – Cal State Fullerton will host and could be a national seed.  UC Irvine should also make it out of this league (which does not have a post-season tournament).  I don’t see anyone else getting in.  It’s a two-bid league.

– Mountain West – TCU will probably host a regional.  I think New Mexico (RPI of 42) is getting in, too, although an 0-2 MWC tourney could make the Lobos a little nervous.  The MWC should get two bids.

– Southern – The Citadel (RPI of 37) won the regular season by two full games, winning its last seven league games (and its last eight games overall).  It was the only school in the SoCon to not lose a home conference series, and went 8-4 against the schools that finished 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th in the league, with all of those games being played on the road.

What The Citadel was not good at was winning on Tuesday.  It was 0-7 on Tuesdays until winning at Winthrop in its final Tuesday matchup.  On days other than Tuesday, the Bulldogs were 37-13.

Regionals are not played on Tuesdays.  The selection committee is aware of this, and probably aware that The Citadel has a top-flight starting pitcher (potential first-round pick Asher Wojciechowski) and a very good Saturday starter (6’7″ left-hander Matt Talley) who pitch on Fridays and Saturdays.

That’s a lot of verbiage to say that, even if the Bulldogs go 0-2 in the SoCon tourney, I expect them to be in the NCAAs. They better be.

The College of Charleston should be in the NCAAs too, with an excellent record and RPI (24).  The only other team with a shot at an at-large bid out of the SoCon is Elon (RPI of 43), which tied for third in the league (but is the 4 seed in the conference tourney).  The Phoenix had a better record against the ACC (6-1) than in the SoCon (19-11).  The SoCon should get at least two bids, and possibly three.

– Sun Belt – Florida Atlantic and Louisiana-Lafayette will be in the NCAAs.  Then there is Western Kentucky, with an RPI of 36 and some nice non-conference wins (Texas A&M, Texas State, Baylor, Vanderbilt, Kentucky).  However, the Hilltoppers finished 16-14 in league play, tied for sixth, and will be the 8 seed at the Sun Belt tournament. Can an 8 seed out of the Sun Belt get an at-large bid?  I’m not sure about that.

That leaves the four leagues that will send the most teams.  The easiest of these to evaluate, in terms of at-large possibilities, is the SEC.  The other three are a bit more difficult to figure out.

– Southeastern – Alabama’s sweep of Tennessee in Knoxville locked up a berth in the SEC tourney (and the regionals) for the Tide and also knocked the Vols out of both events.  LSU took care of business against Mississippi State, and then got the benefit of Kentucky’s meltdown against cellar-dweller Georgia.  The Wildcats were eliminated from the SEC tourney (and likely the NCAAs) after a 20-0 loss in Athens on Friday night.  Ouch.  The SEC, which some were suggesting could send ten teams to the NCAAs, will send eight — the same eight teams playing in the league tournament.

– Atlantic Coast – Six teams are locks (Virginia, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Florida State, Miami, Virginia Tech).  Then there are the other two teams in the league tournament (Boston College and NC State) and one that isn’t (North Carolina).

I think it’s possible that two of those three get in, but not all three.  North Carolina didn’t even make the ACC tourney, but has a really good RPI (21) and just finished a sweep of Virginia Tech.  The Heels actually tied for 8th with BC, but the two teams did not meet during the regular season, and BC wound up prevailing in a tiebreaker, which was based on record against the top teams.  That’s also UNC’s biggest problem — it was swept by all three of the ACC heavyweights (Virginia, Georgia Tech, Miami).  It also lost a series to Duke, which is never a good idea.

On the other hand, UNC did beat NC State two out of three games (in Chapel Hill). The Wolfpack has an RPI of 49, not quite in UNC’s range, thanks to a strength of schedule of only 77 (per Warren Nolan).  By comparison, UNC has a SOS of 15 and BC 16, typical of most ACC teams (Miami has the #1 SOS in the nation; UVA is 9th, Clemson 11th).

The records for the two schools against the top 50 in the RPI are similar.  Both are better than Boston College (8-20 against the top 50).  BC, which is only 29-26 overall and has an RPI of 45, would be a marginal at-large candidate but for its quality schedule and, of course, its sweep of NC State in Raleigh.

What NC State does have to offer for its consideration is series wins against UVA and Georgia Tech.  That’s impressive, but it’s probably not enough to get the Pack an at-large berth on its own.

I suspect that UNC will get in, despite not making the ACC tournament, but it will be close.  BC and NC State both need to do some damage in the ACC tourney, which is a pool play event, meaning each team will play at least three games. The Eagles and Wolfpack each need to win at least twice.  UNC fans need to root against both of them, because even though at-large bids (supposedly) aren’t doled out by conference, a run to the ACC title game by either BC or NCSU probably would move them ahead of the Heels in the at-large pecking order.

– Big XII – Texas, Oklahoma, and Texas A&M are locks.  Kansas State (RPI of 35) is on the bubble but is in good shape.  Baylor (RPI of 41), Texas Tech (RPI of 54, and now with a .500 overall record), and Kansas (RPI of 52) are also in the running for an at-large bid, although the latter two schools hurt themselves over the weekend and are in now in serious trouble.  Both must have good runs in the Big XII tourney (which, like the ACC tournament, is a pool play event).

Baylor, Kansas, and Kansas State are all in the same “pod” for the Big XII tournament, so they may be able to separate themselves from each other (in a manner of speaking) during the tourney.  How that will affect the total number of bids for the Big XII is hard to say.  It wasn’t a banner year for the league, but I could see as many as six bids.  I think, barring some upsets in the league tournament, it’s going to be five.

– Pac-10 – Arizona State, UCLA, Washington State, and Oregon are locks.  Arizona (RPI of 19) probably is too, although the Wildcats would do well not to get swept next weekend at Oregon State.

There are nine teams in the conference still fighting to make the NCAAs.  In this league, there is only one punching bag — Southern California.  Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

Washington has the worst RPI of the contenders (55) and is only one game over .500 overall.  The Huskies play Southern Cal in their final series, which will probably help Washington’s record but may not help its NCAA case.  Oregon State, as mentioned, hosts Arizona and may need to win twice.  The Beavers (with a solid RPI of 32) did get a much-needed win on Sunday at Arizona State to improve their conference record to 10-14.

Stanford (RPI of 44) looks to be in good shape; the Cardinal host Arizona State next weekend and likely need to win just one of the three games (and may be able to withstand a sweep).  On the other side of the bay, however, things are not as promising, as California (RPI of 39) has lost seven straight and finishes the season at Oregon needing to show the selection committee a reason to believe.

At least seven teams from the Pac-10 are going to make the NCAAs, and possibly eight.  I don’t think all nine contenders are going to get the call, though.

Okay, now let’s break things down.  Just my opinion, of course.  Here we go:

– Locks (30):  Louisville, Connecticut, Virginia, Georgia Tech, Miami, Clemson, Florida State, Virginia Tech, Texas, Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Coastal Carolina, Cal State Fullerton, Rice, TCU, Arizona State, UCLA, Washington State, Oregon, Florida, South Carolina, Auburn, Arkansas, Vanderbilt, Mississippi, Alabama, LSU, College of Charleston, Florida Atlantic, Louisiana-Lafayette

– Champions from “one-bid” leagues:  15

– Champions from leagues likely to get just one bid, but that do have bubble teams (but no locks):  4 (the leagues in question are the A-Sun, Big 10, MVC, and Southland)

– Bubble teams that are in good shape (6):  Arizona, Kansas State, UC Irvine, New Mexico, The Citadel, Pittsburgh

That’s 55 teams in total.  If there are no upsets (hah!), then nine other bubble teams will make the NCAAs.  I’ve got them listed in two groups; the “decent chance” group, and the “need some help and/or no conference tourney upsets for an at-large” group.

Decent chance for an at-large:  Stanford, North Carolina, Baylor, FGCU (if needed), Oregon State, Elon, NC State

Need a lot of things to go right:  Boston College, Liberty, Wichita State, Western Kentucky, Michigan, Texas Tech, Kansas, California, Washington, Texas State, Southeastern Louisiana, Northwestern State, Southern Mississippi, Kentucky, Tennessee, St. John’s

That’s how I see things, as of Sunday night.  Most of the action this week begins on Wednesday.  Let the games begin…

Expanding on Bud Selig’s global championship proposal

Bud Selig and his Japanese counterpart, Ryozo Kato, apparently met in Milwaukee recently to discuss a proposal for an annual global championship between the U.S. World Series winner and the Japan Series titlist (skimpy details in this column and the AP article linked within it).  Personally, I think Selig needs to expand on this idea.  Here is a suggestion for a format that would truly determine the “world champion” of baseball:

First, there needs to be a poll system of some kind.  There would be two main polls.  In one of them, writers, presumably from around the world, would vote on which champions of each world league were worthy of playing in the title series.  In the other “human” poll, managers from some of the elite clubs (and even a few from the less-elite ranks) would vote.  Computer polls could also be used, in case further obfuscation was required.

The champions that finished 1st and 2nd in the poll system would qualify to play in the global championship.  In addition, the weeks leading up to the global series would be filled with series between other continental champions.  I would call these various series the “Baseball Championship Series”, just so everyone could grasp their tremendous importance.  The 1 vs. 2 matchup would be known as the Baseball Championship Series Global Championship.

You could have automatic qualifiers from North America, the Caribbean, Asia, South America, Australia, and Europe.  Another couple of slots would be filled by at-large selections; for example, an extra European club would presumably get to play in the Baseball Championship Series almost every year, because of the political importance of that continent.

I suppose it is possible that every now and then a lesser continent would produce a team worthy of competing in the Baseball Championship Series.  It is unlikely such a club would really be at the same level as those continental champions already guaranteed berths, of course, and certainly a place in the title series would be completely out of the question.

However, to satisfy potential rabble-rousers (all great things attract critics), a set of conditions could be met by a prospective qualifier to allow a team from a smaller continent (like, for example, Africa) to compete in the Baseball Championship Series.  It must be emphasized that such a club would never be in a position to qualify for the Global Championship, because it would obviously not be deserving.  The system would be designed to ensure such an injustice never happened.

There is no doubt in my mind that the system described above would be a major success for all significant parties.  There would almost never be a situation where more than two clubs would be in line for play in the global championship, and the other qualifying clubs would get to bask in the glow of the championship event by playing in much-anticipated series leading up to the final.

It’s a wonder such a setup hasn’t been tried for other sporting events, particularly the NFL playoffs and the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament, each of which desperately needs a substantial change in the way it determines its respective champions.

All in all, it’s a fantastic idea.

SoCon tourney “flip” is a flop

Well, I’m disappointed The Citadel lost its tourney opener today to Appalachian State, obviously, but what I wanted to write about doesn’t have much to do with today’s game, but rather the conference tournament as a whole.  It’s a topic that features the SoCon, but it could apply to any conference tournament.  This is going to take a bit of explaining, also, so please bear with me while I outline what I think is a serious flaw in the conference tournament format.

The Southern Conference tournament has two distinct four-team pools (at least, they should be distinct).  One team from each of those pools survives to play on Sunday in a single-game championship.  In other words, it’s possible for a team to go undefeated in its pool, and play a one-loss team for the title, lose the title game, and thus finish with just one loss but no championship.  This is done for television (SportSouth will televise the title game on Sunday).

Now, we’ve all seen this one-game-for-all-the-marbles deal before.  The College World Series did this for over a decade, and nobody really liked the idea of a team in a double-elimination tournament not winning the title despite only losing one game, especially when there were no other undefeated teams.  It happened occasionally, too (Texas did not lose until it fell to one-loss Wichita State in the 1989 final, in only the second year of the single-game championship format; the very next year one-loss Georgia beat previously undefeated Oklahoma State for the crown).

The NCAA has now changed to a best-of-three series for the title, which I think everyone likes.  The current setup is exactly what the college baseball championship should be.  However, what I want to emphasize is that even in its imperfect single-game state, the College World Series bracket was not set up the way the Southern Conference bracket is this year.

Essentially, the league is “flipping” two teams in the bracket for Saturday’s play.  This concept can be confusing, so much so that the conference initially released a bracket .pdf that was incorrect.  It’s now been fixed, and you can see it here.  Jeff Hartsell of The Post and Courier describes the “flipping” of the bracket:

There are two four-team brackets — Cid, App State, Davidson and GSU in one, and Elon, Furman, C of C and WCU in the other. On day three (Saturday), however, the bracket is flipped, with the 2-0 team from each bracket sent to the other.
If The Cid, for example, wins its first two games in bracket one, it will be off Friday and sent to bracket two for its third game on Saturday. This keeps one team from playing another three times in the tournament. It also means two teams from the same bracket could meet in the finals.

The next-to-last sentence explains the rationale for the “flip” — but the last sentence exposes the problem with it.  Let me give an example:

Let’s say that Appalachian State follows up its win over The Citadel by beating Georgia Southern, and then (after the flip) beats Elon on Saturday in the early afternoon game to advance to the championship game on Sunday.  The Mountaineers would be undefeated, and would have beaten the top three seeds in the tourney.  However, what happens if the opponent in the title game on Sunday were to be The Citadel or Georgia Southern?  That would mean that Appalachian State would have to beat one of those teams twice without losing to win the championship.

In other words, say in that scenario Georgia Southern beats Appy.  They would both have one loss (to each other) but GSU would be the champs and the Mountaineers would be out of luck.  Avoiding a potential third game between the two schools by employing the “flip” would thus prove detrimental to the Mountaineers.

The difference between flipping and not flipping the teams is this:  if you have a one-loss team and an undefeated team, and they come from completely separate pools, then at least you could make the argument that the one-loss team came from a stronger pool, so it winning the title against an undefeated team from the other pool isn’t quite as unfair.  You really don’t even have to make that argument; the fact that the two pools are distinct from one another makes things at least somewhat equitable (in theory).  You certainly don’t have to worry about a situation where two teams beat each other, but one gets an edge because it lost in a double-elimination situation before a one-shot title game.

Flipping teams like this isn’t a bad idea for a true double-elimination tournament.  In fact, in that situation it’s probably a good thing.  When there is already an inherent flaw in a format, however, trying to get even cuter with the bracketing just serves to exponentially increase the chances of having an unjust resolution to the tournament.

Error on the official scorer

On May 8, Howie Kendrick hit a home run off Gil Meche in a 4-1 Angels victory over the Royals — only, he really didn’t hit a homer.  Rather, he circled the bases on a poor fielding play by Kansas City right fielder Jose Guillen, a play that should have been ruled a four-base error.  You can see the play here.  (The Royals have appealed the ruling.)

This is just another example of the long trend in official scoring (at seemingly all levels) to avoid giving errors whenever possible.  It’s most noticeable at the major league level, but you see it in the minors and in college games as well.  A couple of weeks ago I was watching a game between Davidson and The Citadel.  Davidson’s shortstop failed to make two plays that should have been ruled errors, but both were ruled hits by the scorer.  Those were two of the seven hits the Bulldogs had.  There are a number of good hitters in The Citadel’s lineup, but it’s certainly easier to maintain high batting averages when the home scorer is overly generous.

It wasn’t always like this.  Years ago scorers seemingly didn’t hesitate to give errors.  Rabbit Maranville was the best defensive shortstop of his day; it’s one of the main reasons he’s in the Hall of Fame.  Maranville also committed 711 errors in his career (the most by a player whose entire career was played in the 20th century; Bill Dahlen, another outstanding defender, had 1080).

Of course, conditions have improved over time for defenders, which naturally has reduced errors.  Players in Maranville’s day didn’t have the modern gloves of today, and also played on less-than-perfect playing fields.  The original Comiskey Park, for example, was built on a city garbage dump.   Pieces of garbage would regularly rise to the surface.  Luke Appling once tripped over a piece of protruding metal near second base; the grounds crew came out and dug up the rest of a copper tea kettle.

You don’t have to worry about things like that when you play on artificial turf, and/or in domes.  When the Twins moved to Minnesota, they played home games outdoors at Metropolitan Stadium, and in those years never had a team season fielding percentage higher than .980 — but since moving to the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, the team has never had a fielding percentage lower than .980 over a season.

As a result, great defensive players have committed fewer and fewer errors as time has gone by, with or without the help of friendly scoring decisions.  Luis Aparicio (who played from 1956 to 1973) had 366 errors in his career.  Ozzie Smith (1978-1996) committed 281 errors as a major leaguer.  Omar Vizquel has been in the majors since 1989.  In 100+ more games than Smith, he has only committed 183 errors.

The amount of money now in the game at the major league level has certainly had an impact on scoring decisions; I suspect that a lot of official scorers would deny that, but there is an importance to statistics in this era of baseball that wasn’t there 50 years ago.  I think it’s a key reason errors aren’t given more often.  Along those lines, another consideration for a scorer is to trying to offend the fewest number of players.

For instance, on the Howie Kendrick “homer” not giving an error is great for Kendrick, and probably doesn’t hurt Guillen’s feelings (even if he later said he should have been charged with an error).  The only player negatively affected from a statistical perspective is Meche.  Two happy players versus one not-so-happy player.  It’s an easy call for a scorer, especially when the batter is on the home team.

Of course, there are other things that come into play…

Many years ago I was scoring a minor league game.  During the game there was a pickoff at first base; the runner completely fell asleep, as he wasn’t even trying to steal a base.  He made no move to second (or first, for that matter) until the ball was in the first baseman’s glove.  The first baseman and shortstop (who was covering second base) completely botched the rundown, though, and the baserunner wound up at second.  It’s the kind of play you aren’t surprised to see in the low minors, to be honest.

Now, I didn’t believe in making things too difficult for myself, but I had no option but to rule a pickoff and then an error allowing the runner to take second base (given to the shortstop, in this case).  If the runner had been on the move to second, I could have awarded him a stolen base; heck, if he had been leaning that way I may have done so.  That’s not the easiest play in the scorebook to illustrate.  I wrote a short note in the margin for the folks at Howe Sportsdata, outlining what had happened.

After the game I was about to fax the scoresheet to Howe when the telephone rang.  It was the manager of the club for which I was scoring.  He had noticed the “E” flash up on the board and wanted to know what the ruling was (the runner was one of his players).  I explained it to him, and he then argued with me for about five minutes.  He wasn’t nasty about it, but he was very assertive.  I told him I would consider his argument (he wanted the player credited with a steal).

After I hung up, the assistant GM came over to me and told me that the front office had a pre-existing agreement with the manager that any “questionable” scoring decisions were his call, and to change it to what he wanted…

The player got a steal.  Perhaps that steal was noted from above by the powers-that-be (“hey, this kid’s aggressive”) and eventually led to a promotion.  Somehow, I doubt it.  Of course, the shortstop was presumably happy not to be charged with an error.  The pitcher and catcher were charged with allowing a steal, which was ludicrous, of course, but you can’t fight city hall.

I think about that night almost every time I see a error that is scored a hit.  It’s just another reason why basing a player’s defensive value on fielding percentage is myopic.

Postscript:   On Thursday, Major League Baseball reversed the official scorer’s ruling on the Kendrick-Guillen play, taking the homer away from Kendrick and charging Guillen with a four-base error.  This was an excellent decision by the MLB panel making the call (and apparently a fairly easy one; all five members of the panel voted to overturn the original ruling).

Port and Jordan

In the last four baseball seasons, The Citadel’s conference record by year is as follows:  14-16, 15-12, 12-15, 12-15.  That is not exactly what Bulldog fans have come to expect from the baseball program, which has historically been the school’s strongest varsity sport.  On the other hand, what should be expected?  I decided to check some numbers in an attempt to answer that question.  I concentrated on the team’s play since 1965, Chal Port’s first year as head coach.

One thing I want to make clear is that this discussion has nothing to do with the current Bulldog squad, which as of this writing is 9-9 overall, 5-4 in the Southern Conference.  This is more about the program’s history, and the current edition of the baseball Bulldogs is just beginning to make its own mark in the historical record.

One of the difficult things in trying to compare and contrast baseball teams of the past is that there have been a lot of variables over the years — in the scheduling, in the makeup of the Southern Conference, in how the conference determines its champion, even in the equipment used.  I made some decisions on how best to make comparisons.  The biggest decision I made was to concentrate solely on league play.

Nowadays the Bulldogs play a lot more games than they did 30 years ago.  In 1975, for example, Chal Port won his second conference title with an 11-3 league record.  His overall record that season was 21-9.  Twenty years later, in 1995, Fred Jordan won his first regular season SoCon title with a conference mark of 19-5, 39-21 overall.  The Bulldogs played exactly twice as many games in 1995 as they did in 1975, and almost twice as many league contests.

Comparing by league record is hard enough, what with more games and more/different schools in the league, but it’s almost impossible to make observations based on the non-conference slate, not only because of the number of games but because of the level of the competition.  Since 1994 The Citadel has played only three games against non-Division I opponents — a game against North Florida in 1995 (in a tournament hosted by UNF), and two games against Presbyterian in 1998 (scheduled after The Citadel won the league tournament in order to prevent an 18-day layoff prior to regional play).

The lack of non-Division I games is due to a SoCon edict handed out following the 1993 season.  For the 1994 season, the conference found itself in a situation in which it didn’t want to be, namely as a “play-in” conference.  The NCAA tournament was a 48-team affair at the time, and in 1994 there were 30 automatic bids.  However, the NCAA mandated that 24 berths for the tournament were to be at-large, which meant there were 6 auto bids too many.  As a result, the 12 lowest-rated conferences from the 1993 season each had to qualify for a regional by winning a best-of-three series against one of the other low-rated leagues.

If that sounds like the NCAA basketball tournament’s “play-in” game, it’s because that’s exactly what it was, times six.  The Southern Conference was one of the 12 leagues that had to play an extra round just to get in the main tournament, and the champion was drawn to face the winner of the Ohio Valley Conference.  The Citadel won the league tournament that year and beat Middle Tennessee State, 2 games to 1, in Charleston to advance to the regional held at Clemson.

To prevent this from happening again, the league determined that its schools should play a Division I-only schedule to improve the league’s power rating.  This was a marginally risky short-term strategy (what if the league had lost an overwhelming number of those extra D-1 games?)  but proved a benefit to the conference in the long run.  However, it meant that the days of The Citadel playing the likes of Hiram or Gannon were over.

As mentioned earlier, comparing eras by conference play is no picnic either.  In 1965, league schools included West Virginia, George Washington, William & Mary, Richmond, VMI, and Virginia Tech.  None of those schools are still in the SoCon.  You also have schools like East Carolina, East Tennessee State, and Marshall, which have come and gone, Davidson (which left and then came back), and schools making their debuts in the league in the 1970s (Western Carolina and Appalachian State), 1990s (Georgia Southern, UNC-Greensboro, and the College of Charleston), and 2000s (Elon and Samford, the latter beginning conference play this season).  UT-Chattanooga competed in the sport for six league seasons before the school dropped baseball following the 1982 campaign.  The conference has had as few as seven and as many as eleven baseball schools over the past 45 years.

Let’s look at Chal Port’s career SoCon record.   Port coached for 27 years and finished with an overall league mark of 253-156-1 (.618).  Port won seven conference titles and one tournament title (it should be noted that the conference did not have a tournament until 1984; five of Port’s league titles came prior to that season).  Port had a stretch of 10 consecutive winning conference records, with that run preceded by three winning records and a 7-7 season, so he actually had 14 straight non-losing seasons in SoCon action.  Overall, Chal Port had 18 winning SoCon seasons, 7 losing seasons, and 2 at .500 in the league.  Port had a winning record in conference play in exactly two-thirds of his seasons as head coach.

Incidentally, Port’s record in the conference after his first seventeen seasons was 143-98-1 (.593), with 12 winning seasons, four losing seasons, and one at .500 in SoCon play, with three league championships.  I mention this because Fred Jordan completed his seventeenth season as head coach last year.  Jordan entered this season with a record of 285-166 (.632)  in league play, with 13 winning seasons and four losing campaigns, and with four regular season titles and six tournament championships.

Jordan, like Port, also had a stretch of 10 consecutive winning seasons in conference play (from 1995 through 2004).  The problem, from the perspective of the program’s current status, is that since 2005, he has had just one winning league season, in 2006 (when the team was 15-12).  In the last four years Jordan’s conference record is only 53-58 (48%).  Did Chal Port ever have a stretch like that?

Well, yes.  After Port’s earlier-mentioned 10-year run of success, which lasted from 1975 through 1984, he had five conference seasons that went like this:  8-10, 9-9, 6-12, 12-6, 8-9.  Overall record during that five-year period:  43-47 (48%).  You may see a pattern developing.  You would be right…

Both Port and Jordan won four regular season titles during their respective 10-year winning streaks.  During those runs, Port won 73% of his league games.  Jordan won 72% of his.

The similarities in the two coaches’ records are striking.  Of course, it’s not that simple.  After those five relatively mediocre seasons noted above, Port finished his career with a run of 29 wins in 32 league games, with two regular season titles, a tournament crown, and a completely unfathomable trip to Omaha.  It’s that finish that people understandably tend to remember, even more so than the terrific teams he fielded during a good chunk of the 1970s and early 1980s.

It’s difficult for Jordan to compete with those memories, particularly since the conference has in recent years seen an influx of schools that take their baseball seriously (Georgia Southern, College of Charleston, UNC-Greensboro, and Elon).  The competition within the league is arguably tougher than it was two decades ago.

That’s not to take away anything from Port’s record, which is lauded with good reason, and in fact is probably even more impressive than a lot of people realize.  Port had to make numerous on-field adjustments during his tenure, including the change from wooden to aluminum bats, and the conference moving to divisional play (and then dropping the divisions), among other things.  Then there were the off-field adjustments, which included integration, and the fact that going to a military school wasn’t exactly the cool thing to do in the early-to-mid-1970s (not that it’s ever been the really cool thing to do).   Consider what the baseball program accomplished, especially when compared to The Citadel’s football and hoops programs of that decade:

From 1971-1979, the football team was coached by Red Parker, Bobby Ross, and Art Baker.  Ross in particular is known as having been an outstanding coach, with major success at multiple levels of the sport.  The football team had four winning seasons overall in those nine years, with no league titles and a conference mark of 26-29 (47.2%).  SoCon finishes:  3rd, 4th, 7th, 5th, 4th, 6th, 3rd, 5th, 3rd.

Tangent alert:  Ross was really good at putting together a coaching staff.  For example, his 1973 coaching staff included Frank Beamer, Ralph Friedgen, Jimmye Laycock, Cal McCombs, Charlie Rizzo, and Rusty Hamilton, along with none other than Chal Port (who doubled as an assistant football coach during his first decade at The Citadel; Port had been a fine football and baseball player for North Carolina in the early 1950s).  The team itself also had some future coaches, like David Sollazzo and Ellis Johnson.  Despite all that coaching talent, in 1973 The Citadel was 3-8 overall, 1-6 in the conference.

The basketball team was coached from 1971-79 by Dick Campbell, George Hill, and Les Robinson.  Robinson would later prove his worth as a coach with an oustanding rebuilding job at East Tennessee State, but during this period the hoops program had just two winning seasons, bookends on seven straight losing campaigns, and had an overall conference record of 43-69 (38.4%).  Conference finishes:  4th, 5th, 4th, 6th, 7th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 3rd.

Meanwhile, from 1971-1979 Port went 85-43 (66.4%) in conference play, with three championships, nine winning seasons overall, and eight winning seasons in the league (and the other was a .500 season).  His SoCon finishes during that time:  1st, 4th, 3rd, 4th, 1st, 3rd, 3rd, 3rd, 1st.  He finished in the upper half of the league all nine years.

He wasn’t done yet, either.  He had his best teams up to that time in 1982 and 1983, with the ’82 squad finishing 40-8.  At that point another power arose in the Southern Conference, as Western Carolina hired Jack Leggett to upgrade its already promising program.  The Catamounts would win five straight league titles, a stretch dovetailing almost exactly with a gradual decline in The Citadel’s fortunes on the diamond.

Port outlasted WCU’s run and (even more impressively) Hurricane Hugo, however, and orchestrated a season that won’t soon be forgotten, plus a very nice coda (the ’91 campaign).  That’s quite a legacy, one augmented by Port’s well-deserved reputation as a jokemeister and storyteller.

Jordan should be credited with maintaining the high standard of the program throughout much of his time as head coach, as the numbers rather clearly demonstrate that he has done so.  What he needs now is a “second wind”.  Port got his after a real-life gust of wind, Hurricane Hugo, blew through Charleston.  Then, rather amusingly (and appropriately), he capped a season for the ages by beating a team called the Hurricanes to reach the College World Series, giving a then up-and-coming Miami sportswriter named Dan Le Batard enough material for several columns in the process.

Jordan doesn’t need another hurricane (let’s hope not, anyway) to re-establish momentum.  He doesn’t even need to start making appearances on Le Batard’s radio show.  He just needs better pitching and defense (don’t sleep on the need for better defense).  He’s had championship-caliber pitching and defense in the past, and I see no reason to believe he can’t get the program to that championship level again.

I certainly hope so, anyway.  I would like to make another regional trip, preferably sooner rather than later…

Will baseball return to the Olympics in 2016?

Last week a delegation from the International Baseball Federation arrived in Lausanne, Switzerland, to present its case for returning the sport of baseball to the Olympic program.  Members of the delegation included IBAF president and longtime sports executive Harvey Schiller and current Detroit Tiger Curtis Granderson.

(Brief digression:  I am duty-bound to note that Harvey Schiller is a 1960 graduate of The Citadel.)

For those unaware, the Beijing games marked the end of baseball and softball as Olympic sports, due to a vote held by the International Olympic Committee in 2005.  They became the first two sports tossed out of the Olympics since 1936, when polo was eliminated.  As to why they were given the heave-ho, there wasn’t really an official reason (at least, not a legitimate one), but the actual reasons were:

1)  For baseball, the IOC was annoyed that MLB wouldn’t stop its season and let its best players compete in the Games.  The honchos that run the Olympics are big on the Games being the #1 goal/event for all sports (with the notable exception of soccer).  That clearly wasn’t the case for baseball (and that is still the case, obviously).

2)  There was also some grumbling about drugs, but that was probably a side issue.  Dick Pound would claim otherwise, but then, he probably thinks baseball is played by savages.

3)  Softball’s problem was that it was perceived as being dominated by Americans, and why give the U.S. an easy gold medal?  “Gimme” golds are reserved for select Euro countries and China.  (There was talk that the modern pentathlon might go, too, but since U.S. athletes have generally not fared well in that event, it was probably never in serious danger of being excised from the Games.)  Of course, the gold medal in softball in Beijing was actually won by the Japanese, which I guess qualifies as irony.

There are two slots open for the 2016 Games, and baseball and softball are competing with several other sports, including rugby, golf, squash, and roller sports (which apparently would not include roller hockey or skateboarding; not including roller hockey would be a dealbreaker for me if I had a vote).

I don’t think baseball is getting back in the Olympics until MLB suspends its season to let its stars participate, and that’s never going to happen.  What is particularly irksome is that soccer, another sport that doesn’t send most of its best players to the Olympics, is allowed to remain in the Games, as essentially an under-23 tournament (with three spots reserved for “overage” players).  I think baseball would be best served by a similar policy.  However, the IOC isn’t going to go for that.  I’m not sure the IBAF is interested in that idea, either.

It’s too bad, really.  I do think softball has a chance to be reinstated, now that the IOC has seen that the U.S. isn’t a mortal lock for the gold every time out.

I’ll close by noting that another sport is trying to bust into the Olympics in 2012.  It may not have a shot to make it to the London games, but perhaps 2016 isn’t out of reach.  I’m talking, of course, about Pole Dancing.

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