Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Cheers from the pressbox to Jerome Holtzman (1926-2008)

The Closer

From "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, July 31, 2008:
For baseball fans and, particularly, knights of the keyboard and bullpen, last week was book-ended with sorrow and joy. On Saturday July 19 at age 81, the venerated baseball writer Jerome Holtzman met his Maker while eight days later pitcher Goose Gossage entered the game’s Valhalla with induction into the Hall of Fame, capping a 22-year career as a relief pitcher of the old school. By that last phrase I mean a reliever who was called in to put out the fire whenever it happened to erupt, not merely a closer in the current style, one who enters the game in the ninth inning with no one on base, succeeds at a rate of 90 percent or higher and, for a winning club, amasses 40 or more saves in a season.

Gossage owed no small measure of his success to Holtzman, who in addition to being “the dean of baseball writers,” may fairly be said to have invented the very thing that measured a reliever’s success: the save. Certainly “inventing” is a term that is fraught with peril for the history of any field of innovation, more so for a game that long embraced Abner Doubleday as its Edison (or Tesla). And it is true that Pat McDonough — who oddly enough went on to become “the dean of bowling writers” — developed a similar stat in 1924 which he called “games finished by relief hurlers”; its first appearance in print came in the New York Telegram three years later.

At about this time the game’s first great reliever, Fred “Firpo” Marberry, had complained that “if the relief pitcher holds the opposing club in check, he gets no credit. The pitcher who preceded him and couldn't stand the pace wins the game.” As the decades progressed, a little-noticed trend was taking shape: fewer complete games, and more clubs employing relief specialists. From 1876 to 1904, 90.5 per cent of all games were finished by the pitchers who had started them. In 1924 to 1946, that figure was nearly halved (45.9), in then in 1959 to 1978, nearly halved again (25.7). By last year the percentage of games had nosedived to 2.3 per cent.

Holtzman recognized in 1959-60 that something dramatic was happening on the field that was invisible in the box score and, by extension, at the bargaining table when relievers came to negotiate their salaries for the next season. As he told Darrell Horwitz in an interview in 2005: “Elroy Face was 18-1 with Pittsburgh in 1959. I was traveling with the Cubs. The Cubs had two relief pitchers: right-hander Don Elston and left-hander Bill Henry. They were constantly protecting leads and no one even knew about it.” It burned him that Face was piling up wins by blowing saves and then having the Pirates rally for him.

Holtzman, then with the Chicago Sun-Times, came up with fairly rigorous rules for crediting saves, and The Sporting News began listing the league leaders during the 1960 season. In Holtzman’s rules, to gain a save a reliever needed to face the potential tying or winning run and his team had to win the game. Interestingly, a pitcher did not have to finish the game to earn the save, but only one save could be awarded per contest. Think how this definition, were it in force today, might impact managers’ use of their best bullpen pitchers.

By 1969, the year in which Major League Baseball made the save an official statistic, Holtzman’s original definition was simplified to credit only a reliever who finished a game that his team won. In 1973 the save was redefined again so that a reliever had not only to finish the game but also to find the potential tying or winning run on base or at the plate, or, alternately, to pitch the final three innings of a victorious contest (whatever the score when he entered the game). In 1975 the rule was liberalized to include a reliever’s game-ending appearance of one inning or more in which he protects a lead of three runs or less; or his entrance into and ultimate completion of the game with the tying or winning run on base, at bat, or on deck; or his pitching three innings to the game’s conclusion.

Now that the complete game has become a near anachronism — this past week also provided the Mets, courtesy of Johan Santana, with their first of the season, matching the Yanks’ season total via Chien-Ming Wang — interest focuses increasingly on the closer and his motley band of setup men. In 1979 I wrote a book now quaintly titled The Relief Pitcher: Baseball’s New Hero. Apart from a painfully thorough review of bullpen history from the 1860s to 1978, which I closed with a profile of the Yankees’ new star Goose Gossage, I also made bold to predict bullpen trends.

“Gossage represents the future of relief pitching,” I wrote, “which rests in the hands of the power pitchers. This trend, slowly developing since the introduction of artificial turf a decade ago, repudiates the wisdom of the past 75 years, that in the pinch what was needed was a sinkerballer who could ‘throw those grounders’ and get those double plays....” One day soon, I concluded, “it will be meaningless to think of the starting pitcher as primary and the finishing pitcher as secondary; they will be equally important. We are not really far at all from that being the truth.” If my crystal ball has proved cloudy, I point out in defense that I wrote the book at a time when smaller ballparks were being phased out for larger ones, astroturf was supplanting grass, and a ball hit in the air was a better outcome than one hit on the ground.

Now that we are deep into the age of the closer, who piles up saves and thereby adulation, not to mention dollars, it may be instructive to contemplate both Gossage’s career, in which he compiled more than 50 saves of two innings or greater duration, and Holtzman’s original definition of a save — which supposed that the crisis in a game could come at any time, not only in the ninth. Any Mets fan who has witnessed the bullpen blow up in the eighth while Billy Wagner awaited his star turn may testify to the truth of that.

Not all runs are created equal — that is the presumption in MLB today. A run allowed or prevented in the ninth is more valuable because either your team or your opponent will be unlikely to respond. But this is the same thinking that has yielded the illusion of clutch hitting — that a .220 hitter who bats .320 with men on base in late innings, is a star rather than a game-long slug and drag on the offense. It has turned out that clutch hitting by lesser players is not a repeatable skill but the product of chance, and the best hitters in the clutch over a career (a stretch long enough to reach a statistically meaningful conclusion) tend to be the best hitters in your lineup ... the ones you bat in the middle of the order.

What if “saving” a game by marching on the field in the ninth, accompanied by the blare of your designated song, were as much an illusion as clutch hitting? Bill Felber did an ingenious study of this question for Total Baseball in the mid-1990s. After reviewing all closely contested games in each of three years (1952, 1972, and 1992) he concluded: “Although the styles managers employ to wrap up victories have changed over the decades — and although the salaries paid to relief pitchers have changed even more — the results have not. Major league teams today blow late-inning leads at almost precisely the same frequency they did twenty and even forty years ago, when there was no such thing as a closer or set-up man, bullpens were commonly refuges for failed starters, and managers signaled for relief help only at the moment of absolute peril.”

When Holtzman came up with the save, those pitchers who were not starters breathed a sigh of relief. Gossage made a Hall of Fame career with hard-earned saves; he was not a “designated hero” like Dennis Eckersley, who in 1992 won the Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards for garnering 51 saves, only 10 of which reflected his protection of a one-run lead. The system developed by his manager, Tony La Russa, so widely emulated today, disproportionately rewards one reliever in the same way that in football place-kickers seem to win or lose football games in the final minute, minimizing the efforts of real players who spilled their blood over the previous 59 minutes.

The former plight of the unrecognized relief pitcher led to the creation of the save. The creation of the save has now in turn yielded the over-recognized closer. And fans are the worse for it, enduring games that are a half hour longer because of bullpen machinations productive of largely nothing. The beauty of baseball has been that it is a players’ game not, like football, one micromanaged at every stage by coaches.

The predictable end of the relentless advance of specialization in baseball was envisioned by John McGraw in the 1920s, who when asked what he thought about the idea of having a designated hitter, replied that “one might as well go all the way and let a club play nine defensive players in the field and then have nine sluggers do all the hitting.”

--John Thorn

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

It's a book ... no, it's a reader... no ... it's radiovision.

People of the Book

From "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, July 17, 2008:
I work at a computer. I prowl databases for late-night fun. I don’t leave home without a mobile phone. I shop online. I maintain a blog. I have been an early adopter of electronic gizmos from Bowmar Brain to Kaypro to Kindle, with many white elephants in between (Sony Data Discman, Psion handheld, Silver Reed palm-sized copier ... I could go on).

All the devices named above do one thing or another better or faster than a book, but none does so well what a book does. The book embodies tradition. It provides escape, and it makes connection. It transports us to other times and places and states of being.

I am a book person. I love the heft of a book, its smell, its design, its perfect marriage of form and function. I love running my fingers over the raised ink in a book set by letterpress.

People of the book may be not only voracious readers but also driven collectors. From the old and rare to the second-hand and remainder, the books with which we surround ourselves in our homes signal to visitors who we are, at a deep level. They also remind us, as we occasionally peruse our collections of well worn or guiltily unread tomes, of who we once were and still hope to become. Books furnish a home and burnish our souls.

Book people will shop in a chain store but will prefer a privately held one. Book people will buy a new or a used book at Amazon or Alibris when they know what they want to find ... but they will look for a used or antiquarian dealer when they want a book to find them.

And here we have a dilemma: not only is the number of such shops shrinking but, of those that remain, an increasing number regard their brick-and-mortar presence as a sideline and online sales as their bread-and-butter. Walk into a second-hand bookstore and try to haggle good-naturedly in the time-honored way and the proprietor will look up the volume on his computer and assert that the price is fair, and let that be an end to the discussion. No matter that the book cited online is a first edition in fine condition and his volume is a tattered fourth, with unsubtle traces of a library pocket. The thrill of the hunt — the chance of finding a rarity in the dollar stall outside the shop — is gone, unless one treks north to the book barns of New England.

But that is the lament of a foiled antiquarian, worthy of derision. Why not simply shift focus: find good books at great prices in places where they ought not to be — in antique shops, flea markets, library sales. To people of the book, such advice is as if Howard Carter had been told to look for Tut’s tomb in Kansas.

If the collecting of books is an only slightly diminished hobby, and the making of books projects no end (never have so many bound things been published, though one hesitates to call them all books), then one wonders if the reading of them is an endangered activity.

I read online A LOT, starting with the New York Times over morning coffee and extending into the night with vintage newspapers from paid database services, or public domain works from free sites such as Google Books or Project Gutenberg, or contemporary works from Questia, a paid service but well worth the money for its ease of search and clipping and shelving features. All of these combined to make me, in the estimation of my lady friend, an ideal candidate for Amazon’s venture into electronic books, the Kindle, which she purchased for me at Christmas.

The Kindle is a Jetson-inspired object that provides a satisfactory reading experience on a train or plane, with a black-on-gray display that is easy on the eyes and on battery life. But you’d never pick up a Kindle at home in preference to a printed product, or even read the morning’s Times on it rather than on the web. Its operating system is pleasingly invisible — one learns how to use the device in just a few minutes—but the amazing thing about the Kindle is its always-on Sprint wireless connection, permitting a lightning-fast shopping experience. Get an itch, order a book from the Amazon store, and it downloads to your device almost instantly. This is one interesting gizmo, and it can even be used, imperfectly, to surf the web and fetch email.

But as an electronic book the Kindle is, like its predecessor Rocketbook, either an oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp or adult male; or an attempt to smooth over the gap between one technology and its successor, like radiovision (the name Charles Jenkins preferred for his 1928 invention of a mechanical television system). Or the electronic book may simply be a mightily unappealing prospect, like an electronic hug. And yet, our captains of industry think that this is the way we will all read one day.

The move from print to pixels replaces a highly successful technology (movable type, sturdy paper, etc.) with a less satisfactory one. It is an answer to a problem no one perceives, except for the proverbial literary traveler on a slow boat to China who would rather schlep a Kindle than a dozen books. Ah, you say, but moguls cut from this same cloth made a craze of the bottled-water business, so why not the Kindle and its kin?

Recent history provides illumination. The calculator replaced the slide rule overnight in the 1970s because it was smaller, faster, more accurate and, quickly, cheaper. I paid $80 in 1971 (the CPI-adjusted $428 of today) for a Bowmar Brain whose equivalent may today be found at the dollar store. In 1971 dollars, $80 was not far from the cost of the Kindle, whose onset will not hurtle the book into oblivion alongside the slide rule.

Why do even those of my vintage only barely recall Bowmar’s name? Because it was an assembler of its products, buying semiconductor chips from such companies as Texas Instruments. Envious of Bowmar’s profits in the early 1970s, the latter (along with other semiconductor manufacturers), entered the calculator business, conducted a ruthless price war, and drove Bowmar into bankruptcy by 1975. Texas Instruments was vertically integrated, as Bowmar tried to become too late in the game.

Reflect upon Amazon’s ambitions for vertical integration. Before creating the Kindle they almost squashed ebook sales when they bought Mobipocket and barred other formats from their retail site. Print-on-demand titles now have to go through Amazon’s supplier, putting the squeeze on that industry. Amazon shoppers love the “Search Inside This Book” feature, but the online giant had Trojan Horse motivations for offering it. Several publishers who gave Amazon the green light to use its PDF files in the Search feature subsequently authorized the conversion of those files into its proprietary ebook format.

But do not fret about the Kindle. Despite the ebook reader’s several virtues, Amazon has almost surely committed a blunder in its razor-and-blade business model (yes, the Kindle cost $399 at launch but it will be half that price soon enough). The device that people of the book truly need to fear is the one that is already ubiquitous ... the mobile phone.

The current Authors Guild Bulletin reports that of the ten top-selling books in Japan in 2007, five were written as cell phone novels. “Many cell phone readers have never read a novel before, according to Japanese publishers. These books owe a lot to popular comic books. The New York Times said many of the cell phone novels read like diaries.”

Information may or may not want to be free, in the decade-old web paradigm inimical to author interests, but in the modern age it certainly wants to be mobile. In a time characterized by vibrant and stable community — say, the 19th century — the solitude of reading a book was a delicious experience: escapist retreat, like today’s audio-visual forms. In a time of loneliness and anomie — say, the present day — readers will tend to value media that promote or simulate community.

A 21-year-old Japanese who goes by the single name Rin actually wrote her first novel on her keitai (mobile phone) when she was at recess in high school, punching short, crisp sentences with her thumbs to display on her small screen. “Novels I had read had more words. My stories have fewer words and are very easy to read,” she said.

Rin later released her novel, Moshimo Kimiga (If You ...) on a website, where its popularity prompted a publisher to issue it last year as a 142-page hardback book. Her story about a high-school romance and the couple’s fight against the girl’s illness (this seems to be the winning formula for keitai shosetsu— mobile-phone novels— especially the illness part) sold 400,000 copies and was ranked second on the nationwide bestselling fiction list in the first half of 2007.

People of the book, be afraid. Be very afraid.

--John Thorn