New Hempshire . . .

. . . as Paul Tsongas used to call it, actually meant something this year. I’m actually thinking of donating a little money to McCain — I’m still not sure who to vote for (I haven’t heard enough from him on the three most important domestic issues, education reform, Social Security reform and selection of federal judges) but I’d hate to see his campaign peter out for lack of funds (though it would be ironic). A fight to somewhere close to the finish (which can only happen if there’s a split decision on March 7) would, I think, be good for the party, particularly since Bush (if he wins) has enough cash on hand to keep the machine rolling (unlike Dole in 1996, who was forced into a quiet period after the primaries while Clinton and his media allies filleted him on tobacco and abortion). The bad primary fights are the ones you get when one candidate has no chance, like Forbes or Buchanan. Bradley may be like that, hammering Gore on integrity and ethics rather than engaging an accross-the-board issues debate. But Bush and McCain both need to keep one eye on November, and both fancy themselves civil-minded moderates, so there’s only so bad it will get.
I don’t think Bush will actually move to the right on any issues, as the pundits warn — he’ll just have to learn better how to sell the conservative agenda. If he can’t do that he can’t win anyway. He actually is a real conservative already — “compassionate conservative” is BS, I’ve always thought he should call it “smiley face conservative,” because it’s about explaining the existing agenda’s virtues (i.e., why conservative policies are a better deal for the middle class and the poor) through a nonthreatening candidate, rather than actually changing policy (which is fine with me).
Gore-Bradley, by contrast, is still highly unlikely to be a real race, but it could be a long ugly fight like Dole-Forbes in 1996 and Clinton-Brown in 1992. Bradley has a lot of cash and he’s showing signs of being bitter enough at the direction of his party to stay and fight long after Gore has effectively clinched. Having Gore constantly taunting him for being a quitter can’t help the case of people who want him to bail out early for the sake of party unity. Gore has already moved left but I don’t think he’ll really move any further — but he could take some punishment by the unprecedented spectacle of a fellow Democrat breaking the code of silence on the ethics of Clintonism.
The real message of New Hampshire, as I see it, is that the strong showing of McCain and Gore and the late revival by Bradley proves one thing: the voters are NOT tired of negative campaigning or of strongly and specifically worded appeals to integrity and combat. Bush’s just-the-agenda, forget-the-last-8-years strategy captured the popular imagination in the summer of 1999 because people were sick to death of arguing about impeachment, but a year later the voters are looking for someone to explain how we reached that nadir in the first place and how to avoid a repeat, not of the acrimony, but of the scandal itself. The Clintonites argued that the only really bad thing was GOP insistence on “divisiveness,” on casting judgment (this is the type of logic that says high crime statistics mean cops are arresting too many people). Contrary to what they would have you believe, I think that once people moved past the don’t-rock-the-boat stage of opposing impeachment during a market boom they began to recognize that this was not a morally neutral argument — that there is some virtue in alarming people when their government has grown corrupt and its leaders too accustomed to the habits of deceit. To voters concerned about such issues, Bush’s conscientious objector status on the ethical issues comes accross as unduly timid. McCain roared ahead in the polls late in large part, I think, because he promised GOP conservatives that he would go after Al Gore on Gore’s dubious honesty (don’t forget that McCain voted to remove the president from office), while Bush increasingly looked vulnerable to the kind of one-sided smear campaigning that is being used against Bradley. Bringing out dad — who never did learn to fight back against Bill Clinton — only underlined that.
This is an email I sent to friends on February 2, 2000.

My 1999 AL MVP Ballot

This is an email I sent to friends on October 5, 1999, reformatted for publication
The AL MVP race, to my mind, is one of the easiest in memory. There are many fine hitters, including several who play key defensive positions, but no one of them towers over the others. The one irreplaceable commodity in the American League this season was Pedro Martinez.
Pedro: 23-4 .852
Rest of Red Sox: 71-64 .526
Oakland A’s: 87-75 .537
A’s without Gil Heredia: 74-67 .525
There you have it — the rest of the Red Sox weren’t good enough to catch the wild card, and were only slightly over .500 without him. Take out Pedro and Gil Heredia — an average pitcher, close to the league average in ERA, who was in the A’s rotation all year — and the race is too close to call. I thought last year that Martinez meant more to his team than any other player, and last year was an off season next to this one. I mean, look at the Red Sox, seriously — they’re basically the late-50s Cubs, one great shortstop and a whole lot of nothing else special. Want Nomar as your MVP? Explain why Pat Rapp, with an ERA half a run below the league, went 6-7. Why Brian Rose, with exactly the league ERA, went 7-6. Why Bret Saberhagen, with a 2.95 ERA, had a lower winning percentage than David Wells (4.82 ERA), Orlando Hernandez (4.12 ERA), Freddy Garcia (4.07 ERA) or Gil Meche (4.73 ERA). Remember how well the Sox played while Martinez was on the DL? Not.

Continue reading My 1999 AL MVP Ballot

All-Century Team

From an email I wrote in July 1999, formatted for the blog:
Baseball’s nominations for the All-Century Team can be found here:

The rules: Balloting for the team begins July 13 through September 10. Fans will be asked to vote for two players at each infield position, two catchers, six pitchers and nine outfielders for a total of 25 players.

After several days of deliberations, here are my selections:
C-Josh Gibson
C-Johnny Bench
1B-Lou Gehrig
1B-Jimmie Foxx
2B-Rogers Hornsby
2B-Joe Morgan
SS-Honus Wagner
SS-Cal Ripken
3B-Mike Schmidt
3B-George Brett
OF-Babe Ruth
OF-Ted Williams
OF-Willie Mays
OF-Mickey Mantle
OF-Ty Cobb
OF-Hank Aaron
OF-Stan Musial
OF-Tris Speaker
OF-Joe DiMaggio
P-Walter Johnson
P-Lefty Grove
P-Satchel Paige
P-Grover Alexander
P-Sandy Koufax
P-Tom Seaver
The easiest call was 1B. Toughest: picking a second shortstop (none seemed quite worthy, since Banks was a 1B half his career; Ripken has been a very similar player to Cronin); leaving Eddie Mathews off at 3B; leaving Frank Robinson and Barry Bonds off the OF, largely on the defensive reputations of DiMaggio and Speaker; picking Bench over Berra; but worst of all were picking a second at 2B and the pitchers. At second, take a very close look at Gehringer some time; he really was amazing. Also, Jackie Robinson was the kind of player who has his best years in his 20s, and he was 28 when he was a rookie, so he may well have been better than Morgan if the war and the color barrier hadn’t intervened and he’d been able to break in at, say, age 22 (1941).
As for the pitchers, you could take Mathewson, Clemens, Young, Ford, Maddux and Feller (or Spahn or Carlton, for that matter) and I’m not so sure I’d have a better staff. Clemens or Maddux would probably supplant Seaver in another two years or so.
I’m biased against the modern pitchers like Seaver, Clemens, Maddux, and particularly Ford because they had a smaller impact on the pennant race than did guys who pitched 300 innings every year. Ford, in his prime, often started only 28-33 games a year. On the flip side, Clemens and Maddux work much harder than their contemporaries. Also, one has to factor in outside influences — Clemens, Maddux, Seaver (and Carlton and Ryan) all lost parts of prime seasons to strikes, Feller lost almost 4 seasons in his prime (albeit probably saving him from an arm injury) to war, Alexander lost almost a season and a half at his 30-wins-a-year peak to war, Ford missed two prime years to military service, Spahn got a late start due to the war, and of course Paige’s whole career is in the shadows due to the color line. Young, of course, is hard to evaluate because he was pitching 450 innings a year when the mound was 50 feet away. The edge, as I see it, goes to guys like Grove, Johnson, Alexander, Koufax, and Clemens who totally dominated the league at their peak. I was just blown away when I went back to look carefully at Alexander’s numbers from 1914-20 — he was as dominant as Koufax, pitching in a park that was 257 down the right field line and 270 to right center, where even in the dead ball era there were 3 times as many homers hit in the Phillies’ home games. The man threw 28 SHUTOUTS IN TWO YEARS. Take away the war and he would have won about 400 games.
Apologies to some of the Negro League stars, but only Gibson and Paige had reputations so strong that they demanded inclusion. Oscar Charleston was often compared to Cobb and Speaker, but who knows?
I also had some gripes with the nominations. Gary Carter belonged on the list rather than Gabby Hartnett (as did Mike Piazza — Hartnett was not known as a glove man, so give a break to the best hitter at the position). Why bother with Luis Aparicio, who nobody in their right mind would trade for Alex Rodriguez (too young for the list) or Arky Vaughn? In fact, A-Rod, Jeter and Nomar would be as legitimate candidates at short as Banks, who was moved to 1B at a young age. I like Eddie Murray as much as the next guy, but he and Bill Terry don’t have a prayer at 1B, and where’s Johnny Mize? Also, Willie Keeler’s career is pretty sad in this company if you only count his exploits in the 20th century. Nonetheless, nobody who was left off is really deserving of the final honor.

BASKETBALL: Why Sprewell?

From an email I wrote when the Knicks traded for Latrell Sprewell in January 1999. Obviously, I was wrong.
What would possess the Knicks to trade John Starks and Chris Mills for Latrell Sprewell? Let’s review.
Improve the offense? Sprewell’s career shooting % is .436, so he won’t help the team’s famous lack of shooting accuracy, and his career 3-point % is 20 points lower than Starks’. Plus he plays the same position as the team’s best young player, Allan Houston.
Play the point? Sprewell is a notorious ballhog; that’s why Tim Hardaway hated him. Adding Sprewell will mean fewer shots for Houston and LJ — the last thing the Knicks need — and maybe fewer for Ewing, which could get Sprewell booted from the players’ union.
Play small forward? In a league where the 3s routinely run 6’10” and over, a 6’5″ small forward, next to LJ or Camby at the power forward, will mean a frontcourt that is overmatched on D and can’t rebound. No rebounds, no rings.
Come off the bench? Spree is accustomed to 40 minutes a game, and we know how well he responds to orders from his coach.
Intangibles? Starks is a playoff veteran — the career leader in 3 point shots in the playoffs — while Sprewell has appeared in 3 playoff games and his teams have routinely underacheived. In the NBA, playoff experience matters more than talent. The Knicks have already lost one playoff series and risked another because they couldn’t keep their cool against Miami; we know how well Sprewell controls his anger, and he has a running feud with Tim Hardaway.
Guard Jordan? One of Sprewell’s big plusses is that he is one of the few shooting guards big and athletic enough to go toe-to toe with Jordan for 40 minutes. Now, if only the Knicks could find people to guard Isaiah Thomas and Larry Bird . . .
Put fans in the seats? Don’t get me started. People might have forgiven Sprewell if he had just apologized and taken his puishment like a man, but the Alice-in-Wonderland lawsuits against the NBA, the Warriors, and his own agent have not helped his cause.
Salary cap? I don’t understand the new cap rules, but while dumping Mills is a plus I have to think that Sprewell makes more money than Starks, so this can’t be it.
They’re not losing anything in Mills, and Sprewell really is a younger, better version of Starks, but this deal just doesn’t make any sense at all from the perspective of assembling a winning team and can’t be excused on business grounds.

Impeachment and Consequences

This is an email I sent to friends on December 15, 1998
Be it Resolved: If (Big If) the President is impeached and removed from office, Republicans will suffer no adverse political consequences (other than installing a left-wing zealot in the White House in place of the spineless spouse of a left-wing zealot). Why, you ask? Here’s why. Just think — what, literally, is Bill Clinton’s theme song? “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow . . . yesterday’s gone.” Clinton has survived his many scandals and at least as many flip-flops and broken promises by accusing his opponents of living in the past, of dwelling on old grudges rather than looking to the Bridge To The Twenty-First Century, of being the party of scandal rather than the Man From Hope. What he said yesterday is old news, and it’s nothing but mudslinging to compare it to what he is saying today. Live for the moment! Feel your pain! Ideas have a past and a future, but feelings are fleeting, and Bill Clinton operates strictly on feelings. Clinton is truly Orwellian in his commitment to erasing the inconvenient past, always remaining the ahistorical man. In many ways the American public has expressed an unwillingness to face impeachment and removal because the people are driven by fear of the future — concern that the economy is doing just fine and who wants to upset the applecart? And Clinton has few real friends in politics, only people who ally with him out of expediency, as he does with them (think how he abandons allies in trouble so often, leaving them to their own devices. Where was he, anyway, for Mike Espy? Henry Cisneros, who’s being prosecuted for lies about an extramarital affair? Not to mention his personal associates. He was certainly ready to hang Lewinsky out to dry before she opened her laundry basket). Most of his supposedly loyal aids have left the White House; he has not inspired a committed core of true believers because, after all, what would they then believe in? Clinton’s power and popularity thus derive entirely from three things: his grip on power, fear of change, and his appeals to the emotions of the moment. If he leaves office, all these will be gone. Like the leaders of totalitarian mass movements, once he loses both power and the bully pulpit he needs to keep rewriting history in his favor, his following will evaporate, leaving no trace. Why fear impeachment and removal when they are ancient history? What Democratic congressional candidate will want to run ads about Monica Lewinsky two years from now? Who will want to hear it? People will care about whether they want Bush or Gore in the White House, not whether they liked that Clinton fella when he was in office. He’s old news.

A statistical fallacy in the Continuing NL MVP Debate and elsewhere

From an email I wrote to Rob Neyer in 1998:
Rob —
I should preface this letter by stating that I am (1) a regular and often favorable reader of your column (2) a general subscriber to the Bill James world view and (3) not a Cubs fan. This issue has arisen both in the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa comparison and also in the local controversy over whether the Yankees should replace the oft-injured Bernie Williams with the nearly indestructible (except by himself) Albert Belle.
In your columns lauding McGwire over Sosa, you rely heavily on productivity-related statistics: Slg and OBP. You thus give a team of McGwires an edge over a team of Sosas, per plate appearance.
The problem is this: Sammy Sosa had about 45 more plate appearances than Mark McGwire because he was younger and healthier. A lineup of nine Sammy Sosas would require over 400 fewer at bats by its bench than a lineup of nine Big Macs — almost a full-time players’ worth. And those bench players will naturally not be comparable players to Sosa and McGwire. In real life, this means the Cards were giving extra at bats to John Mabry that the Cubs were giving to Sosa instead of, say, Lance Johnson or Brant Brown (OK, the Cubbies had better alternatives). How can this be irrelevant to Sosa’s value? Granted, in this case the formula credits McGwire with more total RCs anyway, but considering this factor does narrow the productivity difference.
For more sophisticated analysis, perhaps an adjusted RC/27 measure could be devised (adding accuracy at the expense of simplicity) by averaging in a replacement-level player’s productivity at the same position up to the maximum available at bats (though I recognize this would be complex — McGwire already had over 670 plate appearances, so what’s the limit?).
Anyway, thought I’d pass the idea along because the tendency to equate percentage productivity with overall production is all too easy to slip into and should be avoided.
PS — Why does the Runs Created formula discount intentional walks? They may not be “earned” by the hitter but they still put runs on the board. Barry Bonds’ intentional passes are just as much a part of his offense as bases he steals uncontested, double plays he doesn’t hit into because the infield is in, walks because he was pitched around, hits resulting from a shift, etc.

Censure

From an email I wrote in November 1998, prior to Bill Clinton being impeached by the House of Representatives.
While I continue to be appalled — as a matter of principle — by the prospect of settling for a ‘censure’ of the President (because it is clearly (1) an insufficient remedy (2) an overstepping of Congress’ constitutional authority and (3) an unconstitutional Bill of Attainder), politics is nothing if not the art of the possible, so it is worth thinking about the many things that the House, the Senate (to have any effect, such a bill must be passed by both houses and signed by The Big Jerk), and possibly the Independent Counsel (if such a resolution is to be truly global) could demand:
1. The first nonnegotiable demand in any negotiated resolution of the impeachment proceedings must be a complete acceptance of responsibility and vindication of the rule of law by the Prez. He must not only admit to lying under oath and to — at minimum — failing to dissuade others from lying under oath in ways that were forseeable to him and worked to his benefit, but he must also concede that it was entirely legal and proper for the independent counsel to investigate him and entirely unjustified for the executive branch to carry on a concerted campaign to delay and frustrate the investigation and to smear duly authorized prosecutors who were exercising the executive power of the United States. He doesn’t have to publicly absolve the GOP — this ain’t beanbag, after all — but if he keeps blaming Starr there can be no peace and no true remorse.
2. He could be required to repay the costs of the 7-month investigation.
3. He could be barred from holding office.
4. He could agree to turn in his license to practice law.
5. It had been suggested that he could agree to remove the worst of his cronies from office, but many such as Morris and Carville are no longer formally employed anyway. But it would have to be people related to the Lewinsky thing — asking for Janet Reno’s head (or Bill Lann Lee’s, for example) would likely be seen as overreaching.
6. He could plead guilty in federal court (say, a friendly forum such as Arkansas so the judge would buy the deal) with a recommendation of no jail time and fines & conditions in the amounts specified in the resolution.
7. OR, he could be left open to future prosecution.
8. He could be forced to testify before the Grand Jury, waive all privilieges, & produce documents (without immunity) as to all other subjects under investigation, including campaign finance.
9. He could be forced to agree explicitly not to pardon Susan McDougal or Webb Hubbell (though this too is probably unconstitutional).
10. Or, of course, in fine Washington tradition a backroom deal could be worked out relating to some issue — Social Security reform, Supreme Court nominations, etc. — but he would likely fail to abide by it.
Just some thoughts, to suggest that the Congressional Republicans may have more options than they let on.

My 1998 AL MVP Ballot

This is an email I sent to friends on September 3, 1998, reformatted for publication.
This is a hotly contested question. Let’s establish a few parameters.
First, if the Rangers win the AL West, it will be almost impossible to beat Juan Gonzalez, even though he is clearly not the best hitter in the league and has no defensive value, because guys who lead the league in RBI on winning teams almost always win.

Continue reading My 1998 AL MVP Ballot

Ken Starr and the Great White Whale

An email I sent in 1998, reformatted and slightly edited for publication.
If Bruce Lindsey had an honorable purpose (Ollie North, ahem), he might choose to run on his sword and claim full responsibility to protect the President. Nixon’s people didn’t do that because they didn’t have a just cause, and neither do Clinton’s. Now the President’s only strategy is apparently to flee the country (which may be good for us anyway) until it’s too late to impact the elections; sources say he won’t testify until September because he will be traveling. The devil is in the details — the more witnesses there are, the harder it is for them to all tell the same lies down to the same details.
Starr, relative to the average prosecutor in a white collar criminal case, is at a huge strategic disadvantage because the constant leaks cripple his ability to keep witnesses in the dark about the immunity/cooperating status of witnesses, the order of testimony, and the substance of grand jury testimony. The leaks have also benefitted Clinton by allowing the appearance of a steady drip of unremarkable revelations; imagine if we knew nothing of the Lewinsky thing and it all came out the day after Labor Day in a report to Congress. I don’t doubt that some of the leaks come from low-ranking people in Starr’s office currying favor with reporters, but there’s no question that the White House has tremendous control over the flow of information here.
Starr can question Clinton anywhere he wants, and hell, he can let his lawyers be there too, but he better not settle for anything less than verbal questions, no written notice, and no limits on the scope of his inquiry.

ALL THE REASON WE NEED

This article originally appeared in The Crusader, the Holy Cross College campus newspaper for which I wrote a weekly column at the time.
As America lurches closer and closer to war in the Middle East, President Bush has come under heavy criticism. In a nutshell, it is argued that he has not offered one single compelling reason free of all other motives why America is involved in the reckless adventures of Saddam Hussein. This is a manifestation of Americans’ desire to simplify complex foreign policy crises into simple black-and-white issues.
We must be sure not to mistake questions about the US-Israel alliance for an attempt to reduce the situation to a sort of “Arab-good, Israeli-bad” dichotomy. This would be even worse than its opposite, which all too often is resorted to in our policy decisions. The Israelis merely need to be held accountable for their actions, as we try to do with all of our allies.
In Iraq, however, while the situation is in fact complicated, America faces one of those rare cases where (as with Hitler in World War II) virtually all the facets of our foreign policy process indicate the same course of action. In short, there is not just one reason to stop Hussein, but every reason to stop him.

Continue reading ALL THE REASON WE NEED