brewers baseball and things


How Bill James taught me to love again

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,