The week of Feb. 15 featured a number of notable events in baseball history. Richard looks back at several.
When picking a column topic—I’m sure you’re all just dying to hear this—I browse through a number of resources. Generally, something jumps out at me, but sometimes I need to do a little more research to find a topic I think works. There is nothing worse than starting a column only to discover I can only manage 600 words worth.
I had several false starts this week. Perhaps none could merit a column of its own, but none deserved to be completely disregarded. As such, for the first time since I’ve been doing this, we have a “Bits and Pieces” column, a series of events united only by the week they took place in history.
Feb. 15, 1966: Melido Perez born
One frequent topic on my previous websites was paeans to the early 1990s-era Yankee teams, the truly dreadful teams of my youth. As great as the Yankees have been over the past decade plus, they were every bit as bad in the years leading up to it.
When dealing with the combination of bad teams and limited memories, certain players stand out. I remember Scott Sanderson, for example, as being an ace stuck on a terrible team. In fact, Sanderson’s performance in 1991 on the Yankees (16-10, 3.81) was good but nothing special. The man I really was looking for was Melido Perez.
Melido, whose brother Pascual Perez also toiled for those miserable Yankees, had a legitimately great season in 1992. He put up a 138 ERA+, pitched nearly 250 innings—including 10 complete games—and ranked third in the league in strikeouts per nine innings. And Perez’ reward for his excellence? A spiffy 13-16, good for the second most losses in the league.
In fact, among starters with an ERA+ of 135 or better, Perez’ 1992 season was the fifth lowest winning percentage of the decade, and the ninth worst since the expansion era. The worst since expansion was Jim Abbott, also in 1992. Abbott pitched 211 innings with a 144 ERA+ and ended up with a 7-15 record.
Of course, neither Abbott not Perez received any Cy Young support. To paraphrase Ralph Kiner, win leaders drive Cadillacs, ERA leaders drive Fords.
Feb. 20, 1958: Dodgers sign agreement with Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum
This agreement entitled the Dodgers to two years use of the Coliseum; they would end up spending four years there. While moving out west might not have been a popular decision in Brooklyn, the Dodgers increased their attendance by more than 10,000 per game their first season in Los Angeles.
While attendance might have zoomed, baseball in the Coliseum lacked the natural grace of baseball in stadiums like Ebbets Field, which actually were built for baseball. The Coliseum, being a football stadium, was hugely unsuitable for baseball. While dead center lay 420 feet from home plate, down the left field line was only 257 feet. For sake of comparison, the left field corner at Fenway Park is marked at 310 feet.
This obviously would have some effect on the level of competition—to be discussed more in a moment—but it also made for a suboptimal fan experience. Some of the tickets, which were just ordinary mediocre seats for football, the Coliseum’s usual sport, were extraordinarily bad for baseball. Some seats were nearly as far from center field as center field was from home plate.
What fans watched from miles away was a peculiar brand of baseball: The short left field necessitated a 42-foot screen. The real advantage came to Dodgers slugger Wally Moon, who adjusted his stance after consultation with Stan Musial. His new stance allowed him to become master of the “Moon Shot,” hit over the huge screen. In his first season there Moon helped lead the Dodgers to a World Series title, and finished fourth in MVP voting. All said, Moon hit 49 homers his three years in the Coliseum, and 14 his first three years at Dodger Stadium.
So the Coliseum might not have been the best place for baseball, all things considered. But don’t try telling Wally Moon that.
Feb. 19, 1913: Grapefruit League begins
Well, maybe. That’s the Grapefruit League’s story, and they’re sticking to it. According to their official history, the Cubs were the first team to train in Florida, “lured,” as the history puts it, by the Tampa Mayor D.B. McKay’s offer of covering expenses. I’ve heard other versions of the story, including one that credits John McGraw. Given that bringing one’s players to a warm place to prepare for the season isn’t such a novel idea, it seems possible that several baseball people had the idea contemporaneously.
In any event, though it is to some degree an anachronism these days—since players no longer spend their winters pumping gas or selling drywall, few have to play their way into shape—spring training endures. Although the well-oiled machine of today took a while to develop, for many years teams trained wholly independent of one another, with some teams training in Cuba, Mexico or the Dominican Republic.
Those all sound like relatively nice places to spend one’s February or March. During World War II, to abide by wartime travel restrictions, teams limited their training sites to the northeast. This meant that instead of sunny Florida, teams trained in places like College Park, Md., and—this is my favorite—Asbury Park, N.J. America may not have had quite the hardships of Europe and Asia in the Second World War, but never let it be said we didn’t make some sacrifices.
I love the arrival of spring training, since it means that baseball (and warm weather) are soon to follow. And I especially love stories about how Bob Crappypitcher, who went 3-18, 6.78 last year, has added a change-up he thinks will make all the difference. The close runner-up to those is the story about a mechanical change that is expected to turn someone who couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn into Jamie Moyer.
Of course, the downside of spring training is that one has to endure games featuring a huge majority of people neither I nor anyone has ever heard of. But it is a harbinger of real baseball to come, and a nod to tradition. That’s good enough for me.