Barry Bonds: The invisible man

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Barry Bonds: The invisible man

Posted on 02 May 2012 by Graham Womack

I had an exchange this past Saturday with a blogging colleague, Wendy Thurm. It started with a tweet from Wendy:

This led to something of a debate between Wendy and I about the relative merits of Pujols. I think it’s a closer debate than some people might allow, down to the fact that Pujols posted a higher OPS+ through his age 31 season than Bonds did, 169 to 161. Of course, it must be noted in the same breath that Bonds averaged a 205 OPS+ in the 11 years that followed his age 31 campaign to bring his lifetime OPS+ to 182, and Pujols doesn’t look on any remotely similar trajectory, at least not a month into this season.

In a deeper sense, though, I think Wendy has a point. Bonds doesn’t get his due as an all-time great thanks to the probability he used steroids. In about six months, Bonds will debut on the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot for the Hall of Fame, and I don’t expect him to get more than 50 percent of the vote. Writers have shown an unwillingness, by and large, to give much consideration to anyone thought to have used steroids, old news to anyone who’s followed the Cooperstown bids of Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, and so many others. It’s gotten to the point that it’s difficult to have a rational discussion about this.

I’ll admit I didn’t vote for Bonds in a recent project I conducted for my website having people vote on nine player all-time dream teams. I went with Ted Williams in left for my personal vote, and while I rationalized it by telling myself I’d love a 3-4-5 batting order of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Williams, part of it had to do with my distaste of anyone who’s used steroids. There’s a caveat that I’ll add to this shortly, but I don’t see why I have to like that a generation of players were pressured to use to keep up. I’ve noticed an attitude within parts of the baseball research community to dismiss the effects of steroids on playing ability, and I think that’s bunk.

By that same token, I’m also not into historical revisionism. I don’t believe in excluding steroid users from Cooperstown, being that steroids were no more a part of the game than amphetamines in the 1960s or all-white play prior to 1947. I also don’t believe in pretending Bonds didn’t set the records that he did or in striking his name from the books or giving him an asterisk. Every generation of baseball history deserves to be put in context. Nothing in the game happens in a vacuum. If I could give Bonds a vote for the Hall of Fame this fall, I would. I’ll marvel at his 2004 slash line of .362/.609/.812 even if I hope that no player ever again accomplishes it by the means I assume he did.

I might not like the steroid-addled version of Bonds which emerged in the last half of his career, but if Bonds wasn’t the best hitter in baseball of the past 30 or 40 years, he’s part of a very short discussion. It’s a discussion I wish would happen more often.

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An interview with Cecilia Tan

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An interview with Cecilia Tan

Posted on 25 April 2012 by Graham Womack

In this space last week, I wrote a post on the lack of openly gay players in baseball. The post stirred some discussion, among it a debate that lasted for a couple of days in an email group for the Baseball Bloggers Alliance. One of the people who spoke up, Cecilia Tan, runs blog a called Why I Like Baseball, has some experience going in clubhouses as a writer, and said it’s well-known to media that gay players are already in the sport. This caught my attention, and I wanted to explore the idea more, so I sought Tan out for an interview.

The following are excerpts of our near hour-long conversation via Skype on Tuesday evening:

To your knowledge, without naming any names, are there currently any gay players in Major League Baseball?

I’m trying to think now, kind of going through in my head of the people who are talked about and whatnot. Most of them are retired now, because the time when I was spending the most time in major league clubhouses was seven-eight years ago. But I have no doubt that there are gay players in the major leagues right now. There’s just no way that there are not. There’s no clubhouse that doesn’t have one or more guys at the very least. It’s just not possible that there aren’t any right now.

Did you ever have a player tell you off the record that they were gay?

No one ever really told me. No one ever came out to me or whatever. But there were always guys who were known… When a manager and the press corps are hanging around, kind of joking or whatever, sometimes there’ll be little offhand comments. Sometimes it’s not a deep secret, it’s just a secret to the public. I remember when Terry Francona was with the Phillies, him joking with the press corps. He was kind of tight with the writers down there and would sort of joke around and there’d be little offhand comments about, ‘So-and-so showed up to a thing with a quote-unquote girlfriend,’ you know, that kind of stuff and him playing sort of clueless about it.

The writers a lot of the time have nothing to do but talk to each other, so there’s a lot of gossip, speculation, and chit-chat that goes on. A Major League Baseball team is like the circus. They pick up and move, they travel around, the beat writers travel with them, not on the same airplanes or whatever, but everyone’s pretty much going to the same places. Everyone’s in it together. You find out stuff, you hear things, you are staying in the same hotels a lot of the times.

I’d say it’s an unspoken rule maybe of the current media. Nobody wants to lose their job because they’re the one that decided to make a stink by outing a gay player. Nobody wants to be the one who does that because you’d lose your clubhouse access. Even if you kept it technically, no player would ever talk to you again. If you broke confidence like that, that would be, I dunno– I’m trying to think. You look at the whole steroids thing, performance enhancing drugs. Look at how long the culture of silence stayed around that, and that’s something that actually had to do with the integrity of the game. Players had to speak out about it first before the little guys in the media could say anything.

How good is MLB or the player’s union or any other entity within baseball about taking an active role in social issues from your vantage point?

It’s interesting. Bud Selig, in particular, I think we’re not really going to be able to write the book on whether he was progressive or conservative until he gets out of office. It’s just like presidents of the United States. You can’t really define them until they’re out of office. Selig has been very interesting in that when he first came along, people were like, ‘Oh, he’s just a puppet of the owners. He was an owner himself. He’s not really a commissioner in that he doesn’t dictate anything to the owners.’ That’s the thing. He’s a consensus builder, and he is CEO of Baseball, Inc. basically. I think he always approached the job more like a CEO would as opposed to a commissioner who is supposed to hand down rules would.

You saw that perfectly when one of the things that came out of the Mitchell Report and the congressional hearings was they said, ‘Well, we think there should be a commission appointed to enforce the moral rules of baseball.’ That’s what the commissioner’s job is. That’s why he’s called commissioner. No one’s been that type of commissioner in quite awhile. Really, Selig is the first one who really typified, ‘No, I’m just CEO of Baseball, Inc.’ He’s been very, very successful at that, there’s no question about it. Attendance is up, money is up. The various owners who had their snits and wanted to be contracted, he kind of steered everybody through that.

He’s done some things that are interesting, like he tried to increase the number of women and minority-owned businesses that Major League Baseball purchases from, for example. They have to have a t-shirt company who makes the t-shirts that say, ‘American League Champion Boston Red Sox’ on them, and then when they lose, they wind up on whatever children in some starving country somewhere. Somebody’s gotta manufacture that, somebody’s gotta design it, this, that, and the other, and he put in an initiative, in the ’90s, basically an affirmative action– he didn’t use those words– effort to say, we need to be partnering with more women-owned and minority-owned businesses. That wasn’t something that really got him any PR cred with the fans, the owners didn’t care who prints the darn t-shirts. I think that really came from him and a sort of commitment to, ‘Well, what are the things that I can do to [make] baby steps toward social justice with this giant behemoth of a corporation, money-making juggernaut that is Major League Baseball?’ So that was sort of interesting, He totally didn’t have to have that in mind at all. It wasn’t like he did that to shut somebody else up because of criticism of something. I mean, I don’t know whose idea that was, but you know.

So I think there is a little bit of that going on. I don’t think you’re going to see him coming out– haha, no pun intended– for or against gay marriage initiatives, for example. But I do think we’re at a stage in the United States, where gay rights is, where coverage in the media of equality is, that if you get too many more of these kinds of homophobic slurs being shouted out of the bullpens or whatever, that he will have to make some sort of statement or he’ll have to impose a rule like no racists, no sexists, this, that, or the other.

In your time going in locker rooms, can you think of any specific instances of homophobia, or anything that would’ve made a gay player uncomfortable to be open about his sexuality with his teammates and the media?

I never saw anything. Chatting with other members of the media about it, it really is something that is just invisible. There are guys who, their teammates know, but the reason that it’s okay is because they never, ever, ever bring it up, and it’s never an issue. I dunno. It’s not like there would be guys talking about how, ‘After the game tonight, we’re going to go down to the gay bars and beat people up.’ It’s not like that. It’s much more insidious… A lot of guys fear being considered gay by association. Their masculinity is questioned, as if getting your masculinity questioned is the worst thing that could possibly happen to a person.

I know for black players, they had Jackie Robinson. Gays ostensibly had Glenn Burke who, while he wasn’t publicly gay while he was a player, the word is that he was out to his teammates and the management. And obviously, Glenn Burke, he struggled a lot in the majors between drug abuse and homophobia from some of his teams, most notably Billy Martin. Do you think Burke’s struggles at all might have set gay players back?

I don’t know. I don’t know enough about it. Every clubhouse is different. That’s sort of like saying, was the stress of homophobia part of what led to his drug problems. We can ask the same questions of Doc Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, did racism contribute to their persistent problems? I don’t know. You can say there is minority stress in which people who are not a member of the dominant group are constantly under scrutiny that other people don’t have. If you don’t live with the privilege of being part of the dominant group, you have minority stress and
having to justify yourself constantly, so forth and so on.

If you’re gay, if you’re out, you have minority stress, and if you’re not out, you have what’s called ‘invisible minority stress,’ where you’re constantly trying to pretend to be something you’re not. This is what leads to the high rates of suicide and so forth. It’s just not good for one’s mental health. It’s like playing in the major leagues is already so tough on people mentally. The pressure to succeed, the mental piece is such a huge part of it.

Probably there are guys who think about it and say, ‘Well, look what happened to him, I don’t want to go down that road.’ But honestly, I think most young players probably don’t even know who Glenn Burke was. A lot of young players– and by which I mean all players, because they’re all young to me now. Only Jamie Moyer is older than I am in the major leagues right now– they’re not so much thinking about the guys who came before. Every single one of them thinks that he’s special and different and that’s why he’s made it to the bigs….

Are we going to see a gay player in the major leagues in our lifetimes? I don’t know. Because this is the question, will somebody get outed accidentally, and then have to stand up and be like, ‘Okay, well now I will be the poster child.’ That is how I can see it accelerating and happening sooner rather than later, is that, somebody basically just gets caught in some totally compromising position or gets outed by an ex-lover who happens to be somebody who’s in a position to not just get shut up by hush money. You know what I mean? It would have to be a confluence of different things.

It’s funny, I’m under contract right now to a romance book publisher called Ravenous Romance to write them a gay baseball-themed romance.

Oh wow.

[laughter] I have not delivered them the manuscript. You may not know this if you’re not in the world of romance, but 95 percent of romance readers are women, and women like to read about men, so there’s this whole exploding category of gay romance written by straight women for straight women, but with gay characters, a male-male pairing, as they say. So they’ve contracted me to write this novel, and it’s funny because I can’t even figure out how to get started because I’m trying to think, okay, how realistic do I want this to be, and I do wanna try to dig into what would actually happen if the romance is discovered, or do I want to make it like some romances where just everything is hunky-dory, ignore the actual issues that could occur. I just can’t decide, because part of me really wants to write a book that would make a statement about how it could go in a world where they would have to fight for acceptance, but they gain that acceptance in the end. The whole point of a romance novel is a happy ending, and true love wins. Part of me is like, you can’t suspend your disbelief enough to do this, so I don’t know. I have to deliver it probably by the end of summer, so I need to decide.

Do you think it’s important that baseball have an openly gay player?

Do I think it’s important? I don’t know. This is the thing– I don’t think it’s that important for two reasons. One, baseball will not be drastically improved or changed by having an out gay player, because it’s not as if that will overnight change the culture of clubhouses in general or the way players are scouted or anything like that. Ultimately, it isn’t going to change that much, even though people are going to have a flip out about it. Still, it’s not going to change that much.

When it comes to role models, having gay role models, I don’t feel that a gay baseball player is necessarily going to have that much more impact than the many public figures we have who are out and proud right now, which is one of the reasons why I think it’s even more possible for it to happen. You’ve got singers, actors, dancers, politicians, I dunno, who are the other gay figures? There’s probably a gay astronaut, I just can’t name him. We’ve got gay military officers, et cetera, et cetera. At this point, it’s not as if we’re so starved for role models that us having a [gay] baseball player we can point to who’s in the current major leagues means that the suicide rate is going up because of that. The suicide rate is what it is, despite all the people who are out.

I would have liked to see more major league teams do ‘It Gets Better’ videos. I know a couple of them did. There’s this whole thing that you didn’t have to be gay to do an ‘It Gets Better’ video. Who was it, President Obama did an ‘It Gets Better’ video in which he said, ‘I don’t know what it’s like to be gay, but I know what it’s like to be picked on for being different.’ That kind of stuff I would’ve liked to see, but I think a lot of [teams] said, ‘This isn’t our issue. We’lll put more money and charity stuff into underprivileged kids in urban areas, and we’ll put more into these other things that are sort of more their– you know, children’s hospitals, whatever– more their traditional charities.’

It’s like, alright, fine. That’s why I don’t see myself pushing this issue. I think ultimately, that social capital could be better spent somewhere else. It’s not that I think we should keep the closet door closed in any way. I just don’t think it would make that big a difference in either the sport or in American life ultimately. It’d be a big firestorm, but it would be a big firestorm about nothing. And after that, would it be easier or harder for the next guy to come out would really depend on how that first guy handled it.

Is he going to be a Jackie Robinson type who can kind of conduct himself with dignity? Or is he going to be, you know, whatever? Like a left-handed reliever who is already considered weird? We don’t know. Or is he going to be like a utility infielder who is so marginal that after he comes out and then finds he can’t get a job the next year, people are like, ‘Well, he was a marginal player. He was always the 25th man anyway. It has nothing to do with him being gay. He played like crap.’ Unless, it’s a superstar, we’re always going to wonder, and that guy will always wonder and think to himself, ‘Oh, I should’ve kept my mouth shut.’ I dunno. There’s so many different variables in play as far as how it could go.

I do wonder if we’re not going to see, at some point, some other former major leaguers coming out of the closet. Like I look at George Takei, who was Mr. Sulu on the original “Star Trek” and who was in the closet for many years and is now this total outspoken advocate for marriage equality, but you know, he’s in his 70s or maybe just turned 70. He’s my father’s age. And he’s happily married, too, his male partner who is also sort of a marriage equality advocate. He goes around speaking at colleges, and this and that. He’s on “The Howard Stern Show” regularly now, and you’re like, ‘If the “Howard Stern Show” can have a recurring gay voice, well gee, then maybe Major League Baseball could take it.’ I mean, seriously.

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Gays in baseball: The next Jackie Robinson

Gays in baseball: The next Jackie Robinson

Posted on 18 April 2012 by Graham Womack

Another Jackie Robinson Day has come and gone. I don’t have any major problem with Major League Baseball’s annual celebration of its first black player, which fell on Sunday this year. I’ve heard some suggest the day’s a sham, an excuse to make money. That may be true to some extent, I don’t know. I don’t really care. Robinson endured more hatred and bigotry than any player in baseball history. His 1947 debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers brought jeers from fans and opposing players alike, death threats, and rumors of strikes, even from his teammates. The more baseball can celebrate Robinson’s triumph and his spirit, the better.

No other race or group of players in baseball history went through what Jackie Robinson endured, and today, it’s hard to imagine any pioneering player facing similar scrutiny. I can think of one exception. The first time there’s an openly gay star baseball player, people are going to lose their minds.

It’s one of the last remaining areas of bigotry in America, persecution of gays, and not surprisingly, baseball isn’t much evolved. I know of one player openly gay, at least to his team, during his career: Glenn Burke, an outfielder in the 1970s who was touted as the next Willie Mays but crashed spectacularly between his own drug abuse and homophobia. Burke died of AIDS-related complications in 1995, and besides his sexual orientation, he might be most known for helping popularize the high-five in baseball. I also know of one player who came out in retirement, Billy Bean (not to be confused with Billy Beane) who wrote a 2004 book about it.

Meanwhile, baseball remains a sport where Mike Piazza once held a press conference to say he wasn’t gay, where the publication of a recent all-time dream team project I conducted for my website brought a few comments that Johnny Bench may have been gay as well. Then there’s Tommy Lasorda, whose son died of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1991. “My son wasn’t gay,” Lasorda reportedly told GQ Magazine. “No way. No way. I read that in a paper. I also read in that paper that a lady gave birth to a [expletive] monkey, too. That’s not the [expletive] truth. That’s not the truth.”

Lasorda’s comments might be excusable as the irrationality and denial of a grieving parent, though similar sentiments have been expressed in baseball since. John Rocker essentially torched his career in 1999 by giving an ill-advised interview to Sports Illustrated where he took shots at gays, among many other groups. And just last year, Atlanta Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell was suspended after asking a few spectators at AT&T Park in San Francisco, ”Are you guys a homo couple or a threesome?”

Perhaps society on the whole is less bigoted though I doubt it. I live in California, one of if not the most socially progressive areas in the country, and I watched in disgust a couple of years ago as a majority of voters in my state voted to constitutionally ban gay marriage. I imagine baseball fans in areas politically similar to Modesto or Fresno or Bakersfield would have no problem taunting or threatening a player brave enough to come out.

That’s just the thing. With estimates that 10 percent of people are gay or lesbian, chances are good that a sport of 750 players (up to 1,200 after September call-ups) already has a gay All Star or two. I’ll celebrate when the day comes that he plays openly.

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Prediction: The Pirates will finish .500 or better in 2012

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Prediction: The Pirates will finish .500 or better in 2012

Posted on 11 April 2012 by Graham Womack

In this space last week, I wrote that I wasn’t buying the steadfast hype this offseason for the Washington Nationals. I wrote that in the densely-packed National League East, the Nationals would be hard-pressed to reign supreme over the Atlanta Braves, Miami Marlins, and Philadelphia Phillies. I wrote that if the Nationals played in the NL Central, like the Pittsburgh Pirates, I might project them to win 90 games. Accordingly, it’s time for another prediction.

It’s been 20 years since the Pirates last had a winning season. In the two decades since Francisco Cabrera dumped a bloop single in front of Barry Bonds that sent the Braves to the World Series, Pittsburgh fans have gotten to know a special kind of futility. They’ve had at least 90 losses ten times. Not once in 20 years have they scored 800 runs, though they’ve allowed that many eight times. And Pittsburgh has more or less served as an assembly line for sending talented young players to other teams.

Few teams in baseball history have stayed this bad for this long. The Boston Red Sox had a similar run after Babe Ruth left town. The Philadelphia Phillies had one winning season between 1918 and 1948. But eventually, those teams made it out of their ruts, and this year, I see the Pirates doing likewise. In 2012, I predict the Pirates will finish .500 or better.

It has to happen at some point, right? I see a few reasons why this could be the year. First, the Pirates have assembled a solid, young core. Their pitching staff, while nondescript, managed a 4.04 staff ERA last season and will have A.J. Burnett this year. On offense, Pittsburgh has Neil Walker, Jose Tabata, Pedro Alvarez, and others. Alvarez is a power-hitting third baseman who struggled last year but is still young and comes highly touted. If Tabata can stay healthy, he looks like a potential .300 hitter. And Walker could be among the best second basemen in the National League if he builds on his 2.5 WAR, 12 home runs, and 83 RBI from 2011.

The Pirates also showed they may have learned from their past, giving a six-year, $51 million extension to budding superstar Andrew McCutchen who, after three seasons, looks a lot like a young Barry Bonds. As it was with Bonds, McCutchen’s an All Star outfielder with speed and power, and like Bonds, he posted a 123 OPS+ over his first three seasons. Unlike Bonds, McCutchen may not be going anywhere through his prime years. It’ll be interesting to see if the Pirates continue to build around him.

All of this is moot, though, save for the most important fact here: The Pirates play in the NL Central, baseball’s most dysfunctional division, the Sarajevo of the MLB. It certainly looks to have all the order this year of a post-Soviet kleptocracy. Consider: The Cardinals and Brewers have gone forward without  Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, respectively. The Reds have much of a team in tact that won 91 games in 2010, but never underestimate Dusty Baker’s potential to create chaos. And as for the Cubs and the Astros, they might not even have a winning season in Triple-A.

So mark my words, good things should be happening in Pittsburgh this year, and for what’s it worth, at least one positive already has occurred. The Pirates kicked their season off taking two of three at home against the Phillies.

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Washington Nationals: Not buying the hype

Posted on 04 April 2012 by Graham Womack

A couple of years ago, Sports Illustrated ran a preseason story hyping the Seattle Mariners on the strength of the defensive metric, Ultimate Zone Rating. I remember reading the article and wondering if I was behind the times, especially since I’d never heard of UZR (and truth be told, I still don’t really understand fielding stats.) The piece seemed a little odd since the Mariners didn’t look to have much offense or many big names, but I gave SI the benefit the doubt because, well, it’s SI. From there, the Mariners proceeded to go 61-101 and score 513 runs, the kind of numbers Gold Glove fielders and Cy Young hurlers curse silently. Heck, even the Hitless Wonder 1906 Chicago White Sox scored 570 runs.

This year’s version of the 2010 Mariners might  be the Washington Nationals. All winter, I’ve heard writers saying this will be the year the Nationals break through. They point to Washington’s young talent, to splashy pickups like Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson. They say that Jayson Werth will bounce back after a disappointing first year in town, they hint at the possibilities if Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann can stay healthy, if super prospect Bryce Harper can get a full year in the majors. Manager Davey Johnson has called for his firing if Washington misses the playoffs, and on Monday, two writers predicted the Nationals would nab a wild card spot.

Suffice it to say, I’m not buying the hype. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Nationals finish below .500 and end the season with a different manager. As a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and a blogger, I try to embrace sabermetrics and new ideas in baseball, but this is one time I’m not ashamed to fall back on my traditionalist roots. And by various traditional measures, the coming season doesn’t bode well for the Nationals.

Where do I see Washington running into trouble? Let’s start with the Nationals’ division, one of the toughest in baseball. If Washington was in the National League Central rather than the NL East, I’d have no problem predicting good things for them. I’ve spent a lot of the winter doing as much for the Pittsburgh Pirates, with their division in a state of flux and looking to be a crap shoot. Like the Nationals, the Pirates are young and offensively-challenged. Put them in the NL East, and I’d count on them to lose 90 games. It’s simply too tough to contend, what with the Phillies’ window of opportunity still open, the Braves retooled, and Miami Marlins management suddenly doing its best to end the recession.

From there, I look down the Nationals roster and see mostly a collection of young ballplayers and second-rate veterans, no batter besides Ryan Zimmerman striking much fear and Zimmerman himself coming off an injury-shortened, 101-game season. I see several players that might shine if things go well, from Gonzalez to Strasburg to Werth, though it seems they could just as easily struggle mightily in 2012. Mostly, I see a club that looks hard-pressed to improve on the 624 runs it scored in 2011, and if there’s one thing I know, it’s that scoring a lot of runs and having a positive run differential are a one-two punch for success in baseball. The Nationals did neither of these things last year and have applied no sure remedy for this year.

Could I be wrong? Of course, and it’d be nice to see the Nationals thrive. They’re using a model similar to how the Braves became a force 20 years ago, assembling a slew of solid young pieces, and I believe it’s a matter of when, not if the Nationals become relevant again. I just doubt it will be this year. The 2010 Mariners taught me as much.

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