brewers baseball and things

How Bill James taught me to love again

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No one told me about Darrell Porter, but it wasn’t like he was a secret, certainly not in Milwaukee. The Brewers made him the fourth overall pick in the 1970 draft. He made some noise as a rookie in 1973, was an all star in 1974, again in ’78 and then 1979 happened.

I had Porter’s 1980 baseball card, all star strip across the top, autograph print in the middle, Royals banner along the bottom with a nice action photo, Porter in pump mode, ready to hit the ball.

It was like any other card in my collection; from the Jackie Jensen 1959 to Jim Brewer 1975, in that I turned it over often, and stared mindlessly at all those numbers and details about a player’s life, sometimes accompanied by a cartoon like the 1981 Harold Baines, “Was first noticed by White Sox as a 12 year old playing Little Lg. Ball.”

I later learned it was Bill Veeck who noticed Baines, but back to Porter. I never noticed that he walked 121 times in 1979, but then again, how could I? The 1980 Topps was like any other Topps set, from 1952 to 1980;  walks were never included. Only in 1981 with Donruss and Fleer flooding the market were walks given their due, and by all three companies too.

But in 1980, walks were nowhere to be found. Still, no excuse. I should have known, since I subscribed to The Sporting News and the paper must have praised Porter’s 1979 season all summer long – the walks, 112 RBI’s, 100 runs scored, 20 home runs.  Crazy numbers for a catcher, maybe one of the best seasons ever for a guy who also caught 157 games. I could have gone all Darrell Porter Puffs Crazy over those 121 walks, but I didn’t and Bill James didn’t help matters.

His annual abstracts were no longer back of baseball digest mail order specials. They weren’t mainstream either, but his wisdom was out the bag, flood to soon follow. I should have been ashamed for not knowing, for not caring  about walks. My Little League coach turned the third base coach’s box into a podium to preach, “Good eye. A walk’s as good as a hit,” but I didn’t listen. I was too in love with all the pennants and posters plastered across my bedroom wall and UL Washington’s toothpick, the submarine delivery of Tekulve and Quisenberry, flamingo front leg kick Harold Baines, one flap down Jeffrey Leonard, and so on and so on, a Mickey Rivers bat flip, Cooooooooop, all the colors of baseball.

My strat-o-matic guru tried to convince me. He praised Porter’s 1979 season and preached walks, home runs per at bat, right-lefty splits as keys, but I didn’t listen. I was still in love with what I wanted to love and sure, every so often I got lucky and Rob Deer, one of my favorites happened to crush lefties, walk a lot, hit home runs efficiently and what a throwing arm so his strat-o card reflected this, but that was no way to run a strat-o team or my life, bowing to luck and love, but the duo worked wonders, melted time and removed boredom.

But one year, I must have looked in the mirror one too many times because a cold breeze hit me, to the bones. I took a stance, became an anti-sabermite, nay saying statistical research as somehow not human or not what baseball was really all about, an us versus them world I lived in, but bubbling up from the ground came more than Bill James. There were dozens and hundreds of number crunchers who could also write with flare and a sense of humor and so life became a pigeon’s neck – grey with a turquoise and berry shimmer, a best of both worlds with numbers and instincts twirling together a barber shop pole, love fueling the machine.

I joined SABR, discovered there was more than statistical research there and signed up to write the Gary Roenicke BIO, as part of the massive SABR Bio Project undertaking, to preserve every player, coach, executive, mascot, organ player, anyone involved in baseball since the big bang, I guess Ross Barnes blast on May 2, 1876?

The Orioles front office provided Roenicke’s phone number and a breakthrough happened midway through our conversation. I pointed out that he was never platooned, that most of his home runs were hit against righties and Roencicke perked up and agreed. I felt so damn smart, sabermetrically smart. What a boost to my mathematically challenged mind. Of course, my insight was in reality no insight at all, just a baseball reference observation under home run splits, but still, my strat-matic guru, would have been proud.

I think the entire interview is posted on this blog somewhere. It’s also on you tube. I finally got around to writing the full Roenicke BIO and last week, it was accepted and published on the SABR site, http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/1b9f0200

 

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Author: Steve Myers

I grew up in Milwaukee and have been a Milwaukee Brewers baseball fan for as long as I can remember.

20 thoughts on “How Bill James taught me to love again

  1. I read the Roenicke bio. Very nice job. Done with more flare than these things generally show.
    v

    • Thanks v. I was browsing around the SABR site, seeing what other bios have not been assigned. I started with Harold Baines since he was my favorite player. Apparently, someone is in the process of writing it, but Darell Porter is still available. Bummer he passed away so young. I would love to research and write his Bio.

      • That would be great. I always liked Darrell Porter and was shocked at his death.

        Glen

      • Glen, The SABR Bio project is such a massive and wonderful undertaking that includes broadcasters, ballparks, scouts, executives, players and mascots, anyone that has ever contributed to baseball. I’m gonna look into doing the Darrell Porter Bio. Of course, big bummer he passed away. No interview available.

  2. Great, great stuff man. Thanks for making baseball reading fun…now if only 99 percent of the other baseball writers would get on board.

  3. I meant to ask yet forgot….what do you think about the LuCroy, Braun trade rumors??

    • Keep Lucroy. Keep Braun. I like this phase the Brewers are going through. Got a great young pitching staff. I’m a bit biased on that, but I really like what’s there. Let Lucroy play big daddy. And now we add former A and Astro Chris Carter, another potential Brewers swing and Kabam! or K like Deer and Branyan and Bill Hall. I miss being a part of the American League, but I like Braun a lot. I like his guts. The guy is a walking guillotine with all the judgments coming down on him and he still steps to the plate and he still hits the ball all over the place and with power.

  4. Have you got a couple of minutes to tell me what ‘walked’ means in the context of baseball?

    • Yes, of course Marie, always. Walked refers to a walk which is awarded the batter after the pitcher issues him four balls. I say awarded because it really is a gift or a free pass in that the batter doesn’t technically have to do anything. He can just stand there as four pitches pass and if the umpire judges them to be balls, the batter is awarded first base and becomes the runner. That’s highly significant. That’s 90 feet out of a required 360 needed, to score a run. Around the diamond goes the runner, from 1st base to 2nd, 3rd and then home. So a walk is 25 percent of that process.

      Most argue that a walk is much more than doing nothing. It requires patience and a good eye in that the batter uses his free will to either swing or not swing. And if he doesn’t swing, there’s a risk that the umpire will judge the pitch to be a strike. Three of those and you’re out.

      The walk has changed over the years, requiring I think 10 balls initially, back in the 1870’s or thereabouts, then 9 to 8-7-6-5 and now today, 4. There always seemed to be debate over the significance of the walk and how walks should be represented statistically.

      Batting average (hits divided by at bats) was the most popular statistic used for over 100 years, so popular that the number became more like a word, arousing an emotion or certainly a memory. Say .367 to someone on the street and something might happen, typically a conversation. I mention it because batting average does not include walks in its equation.

      The recent groundswell of attention given to the walk is maybe rooted in the presence of Bill James on the baseball map in the 1970’s and 80’s. But then again, the walk has been praised and loved since way back in the Henry Chadwick days. You and I have previously talked about him. But in terms of mainstream understanding of how significant a walk is and appreciation for it, there seems to have been a sort of revolution or maybe more of a renaissance?

      I hope that helps. We can continue this another time. Thanks for asking Marie.

      • All is now clear. In a way it is almost the diametric opposite of walking in Cricket. In Cricket, a batsman may often ‘walk’ if he knows that he is out, before waiting for an umpire’s decision, i.e. he will volunteer that he is out and will walk back to the pavilion*. It is seen as a sportsmanlike gesture, and often if a batsman does not ‘walk’ he will get some boos from the crowd or barracking from the opposition.

        One of my favourite players, Stuart Broad, notoriously did not ‘walk’ in one match, but stubbornly waited and stood his ground. He was as out as Hell – he knew it, everyone else on the field of play saw it, it was obvious from TV replays, it was just that the umpire’s field of vision was obscured at the time. Or something like that.

        By contrast, in a recent match between South Africa and England, the SA batsman Hashim Amla was caught by James Taylor, fielding at short leg, off the bowling of Stuart Broad. It’s on YouTube, and if you watch it, you’ll see that after gathering his thoughts, Hashim Amla doesn’t even bother to look at the umpire, he just turns and heads off.

        *the pavilion is a damn sight fancier than a dugout, I have to say that.

      • Thanks Marie, interesting as always, cricket comparisons, that is. Yes, dugouts are apparently littered with wrappers and seeds and tobacco spit, but the dirtier the better I guess. Gives someone a job.

  5. Pete Rose was the best even at WALKING (Bases on Balls). He didn’t walk. He RAN, even on a walk! Wish I could find a tape to find for you to show you, Marie. Say what you want about Pete Rose; the guy was, by far, the most FUN player that I’ve ever had the privilege of witnessing in all my years of following baseball. Pete Rose WAS Baseball.

    The Rose thing is a tragedy, but I’ll always treasure the memories of his playing days.

    Glen

  6. I would say you would have to write the Andy Kosco bio, but someone already got to it. My favorite Brewer catcher will always be Paul Ratliff; his ’71 Strat card is a thing of wonder.