Thursday, October 24, 2013

Mariano Rivera's Retirement, Eras in New York Sports History, Sandy Koufax and Pitch Counts: World Series Special Edition

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I wanted to make a few remarks on the recent retirement of Mariano Rivera. I have been planning to do this all season, not because he was an iconic and unusually beloved player whose departure undoubtedly marks the close of a significant era in New York City sports history, which various eras parallel those in the city's social history with surprising closeness, but because he was the last remaining active player in any of the three big professional team sports who was older than I am. I have not gotten around yet to watching the dramatic scene from his final game when he broke down in tears after facing his last batter, probably because I heard and read too much about it in the days after it happened from people with whom I don't feel any bond. Still, it is a milestone that my generation has now passed from the competitive professional sporting scene entirely. Even if Brett Favre wants to come back again, I don't think they will let him at this point. Rivera had become an exceptionally piquant player in recent years due to the circumstance that his mere presence on the field, and even around town in some instances, had become comforting and even uplifting to New York fans, many of whom of course are legitimately sophisticated people. When he made his first appearance in a game at the beginning of this season after having missed most of last year due to tearing up his knee, numerous of my 40-something New York area friends expressed a mild but palpable excitement and joy that is rarely felt by people our age. Even though he is a link to when we were younger, and the city, while already in transition to its present state, still had a different personality and feel about than it has now, this was not, I think, all about nostalgia and the lost Eden, for many of my contemporaries adapted well to the new world and the new New York--indeed, they may be said, by their agility in and embrace of these, to have grown up along with them and contributed in no insignificant way to their development. Still, while the responses of middle-aged fans to Rivera's last year were tributes to an ongoing sense of excellence and stability and sense of self that he projected, it is hard not to feel that an era is coming to an end, and not merely in baseball.

Eras in New York sports history track pretty squarely with the prevailing cultural and socio-economic zeitgeist. Obviously one could make the same argument with regard to Broadway shows, or restaurants, or toy stores, or anything else. Sports come at things from a somewhat different angle, and it is not always obvious how the era of sweatshops and teeming tenements and Tin Pan Alley connects with the career of Christy Mathewson, other than that the life trajectories of these disparate careers and phenomena coincide rather wonderfully.

1840s--Invention of baseball, or at least the first widespread evidence of its being a popular recreation. Working men would ferry from the city to Brooklyn and Hoboken, much of both of which cities at that time was still farmland.

I'm skipping ahead a few decades, as I don't have any sense of the New York sports scene from 1850-1880.

1883-1892--The Buck Ewing era. The early New York Giants had an outstanding team in this era, with multiple Hall of Famers, culminating in back-to-back pennants in 1888 & '89. The team relocated from Troy (N.Y.) to the original Polo Grounds in 1883. Ewing continued to receive votes in media polls for the greatest player of all time into the 1940s, after which presumably everyone who had any memory of him had passed on. This was the era when fighting, drinking, gambling, throwing bottles at the umpires, etc, reached its zenith, and a lady would no sooner go to a ballgame than she would to a cockfight. It sounds reminiscent of the 1970s.

1893-1899--The personality of the remainder of the sporting 1890s in New York is unclear to me. Baltimore and Boston had the most famous teams in this period (though Brooklyn had some good years). When I was a child, the 1890s were still (sort of) dimly remembered as "gay"--images still come to mind of mustachioed men in bowler hats riding unicycles and ladies in white fruffy dresses with matching parasols seated in the carriage of an early motorcar singing "In the Good Old Summer-Time" as they puttered under the elm-tree and picket fence-lined avenue--but in many ways it had a lot of similarities to our own time. Cheating was rampant, not merely in sports but throughout society, enormous fortunes were amassed even though there was a major economic depression in the middle of the decade, immigration was transforming the population, technological and economic forces were rendering millions obsolete and leaving them and their children seemingly behind forever. Yet because the upper middle and wealthy classes lived so charmingly in this period, or came to be seen as having done so, by the 1950s, 60s, 70s, this image of the decade had become the predominant one in the popular memory.

1900-1915--The Christy Mathewson/John McGraw era. The years when the Giants ruled New York--indeed, as Laughing Larry Doyle put it circa 1911, "It's great to be young and a Giant." They were a fascinating team. McGraw was famous for being a short-tempered Irish bully, but he loved the Bucknell -educated and gracious Mathewson like a son and among his players there were as many who could be said to be almost gentlemen, especially when compared with the era of the 1890s when he himself had played--Rube Marquard, whose immigrant parents had wanted him to be a doctor and despaired at his becoming a ballplayer, Chief Meyers, Fred Snodgrass, the eccentric Charles Victory Faust, a non-player who persuaded McGraw that he had had received a prophecy that the Giants would win the pennant if they put him on the team (they did). McGraw would last as the manager until 1932, and even enjoy a run of success with four straight pennants and 2 more championships from 1921-24, but by that time he was a decided second banana in town.

1916-1919--interregnum--like Western civilization, the original Giant dynasty suddenly fell apart in August of 1914. McGraw did manage to lead a fairly nondescript team to a pennant in 1917, where they lost the World Series, but overall this was a dark few years of baseball history, plagued by gambling and ferocious battles over money, as well as the last years of the 'dead-ball' era, which like the last years of any era appears in retrospect to have been tired and waiting for the next big development to come along, even though at the time no one had any sense of this happening.

1920-1934--Babe Ruth era. The Babe was obviously one of the main men of the roaring 20s in any field. His age overlaps into the first half of the Depression, though his departure does coincide more or less with the ascendance of Roosevelt and the New Deal and the more sober mayorality of Laguardia--almost as if nobody could fully realize until the Babe faded that the good old days were really gone and politics and the temperament of the city could move on accordingly

1933-1937--New Deal Interlude, Gehrig/Hubbell/Ott micro-era. Giants briefly resurgent with 3 pennants and 1 championship, Yankees in transition '33-'35.

1936-1951--DiMaggio era, core from 1937-47, covering the World's Fair, consolidation of New Deal. World War II and the flush of the immediate aftermath before the big postwar developments (television/suburbanization) roared into full throttle

1947-1955--Another overlapping period--Jackie Robinson/Boys of Summer/Young Willie Mays/Yogi Berra era. Last notable thrusts, ever diminishing through this crucial period, of the old New York of the 1900-45 period.

1951-1968--Mickey Mantle era, core from 1956-64. Departure of baseball Dodgers & Giants to west coast in 1958 taken by many at time as symbolic of cultural shift to California. Also features the glamorous New York Giant football team in that era, with Frank Gifford, Rosey Grier, Sam Huff, Kyle Rote, Y.A. Tittle, among the first N.F.L. players to achieve widespread crossover fame. After long runs of success the Giants abruptly collapsed in '64 and the Yankees in '65, with neither team to re-emerge as a force for more than a decade. In that same year the city was struck by the famous blackout and the ill-fated Lindsay was elected mayor.

1967-1973--Joe Namath/Tom Seaver/Willis Reed era. The city descends into its infamous epoch of crime, filth & bankruptcy, though in these years it retains a certain charm in sports/movies/popular culture anyway. By the time the Mets drop the World Series in October of '73 even this charm is largely played out.

1974-1975--The Death Wish era.

1976-1981--Bronx Zoo Era. Crime and filth firmly entrenched, believed at time to be permanent and unresolvable. Lots of decadence--disco, cocaine, rampant sex to the extent of, in many cases, physical debilitation and even death. To my unending surprise this era has in recent years become somewhat celebrated (by those in the know) as a great one in the annals of the city, with an intellectual ferment and sexual energy and flavor to daily life that today's sanitized corporate city is lacking. I think once the more self-aggrandizing baby boomer and stridently anti-social generation x-types who are pushing this narrative pass on, it will be difficult for most people to honestly feel this to be the case. This is the city I encountered on my first visit as an 8 year old in 1978, already well immersed from books and so in an image of the city that dated from the pre-1960 period at least. It was still exciting to be there, but my impression was that it was obviously pretty crummy compared to what it used to be and that I had missed the beautiful time.

1982-1990--The Mattingly/Gooden/Mets/Bill Parcells/Chris Mullin era. I'm not sure what the defining characteristic of this period was. Old school rap music? When I see a movie made during these years I think, oh yes, that's New York the way I usually think of it as being, even now.

1991-1994--Another transition period. Patrick Ewing era?

1995-2013--Rivera/Jeter, et al era--coincides with Giuliani/Bloomberg mayorships, crime decline, techno-city and new gilded age. Whatever has been lost in this new age, whenever I go there now I can never get over how clean it is. It seemed impossible in the 1970s and 80s.

My computer is running out of juice, or something, and I want to finish off this post, but as I have been watching the baseball playoffs, and seeing the Detroit Tigers lose several games because they had to take out their star pitcher in the 7th inning due to his pitch count getting to 110, I was reminded of how much I hate pitch counts. I had seen that somebody had put up a link to the full telecast of Game 7 of the 1965 World Series, when Sandy Koufax threw a three hit shutout on two days rest in a 2-0 victory. I have long been curious about what pitch counts were like in the 60s and beyond, when pitchers threw way more innings and complete games than they do today (Koufax in '65 for example pitched 323 and 27 in these categories in the regular series, before making three starts and throwing 2 more shutouts in the World Series). I thought it possible that pitchers might have been able to breeze through games in 110 pitches or less, seeing as lineups in the 60s were loaded with 150-pound middle infielders who hit  .215 with no power, overweight guys with glasses who hit .230 and popped a home run once a week or so, pitchers still batted in both leagues, and consciously trying to build up the opposing pitcher's pitch count to get him out of the game was not employed as a particular strategy, because the pitcher wouldn't be taken out of the game unless he was getting hit harder than his relief would likely be. In short, I decided to track Koufax's pitch count for Game 7. To my surprise it was pretty high, given that he only gave up three hits and three walks and the Twins never came really close to scoring. He threw 132 pitches (on two days rest, remember), 86 for strikes, for the record. He threw 26 in the first inning alone, when he walked two hitters, but after that he was between 10 and 19 for every other inning. Breaking it down further, from innings 1-3 he threw 50 pitches, 39 in innings 4-6, and 43 in innings 7-9. His 100th pitch came with two outs in the 7th. At the end of seven innings he had thrown 103 pitches, at the end of eight 116. There was someone warming in the bullpen in the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 8th innings (shown after pitch 109), which surprised me, though it indicates that there was some slight concern about Koufax's stamina, and manager Alston made a visit to the mound in the fifth. Koufax gave up a single on pitch 124, with one out in the 9th in a 2-0 game. Even in the (doubtful, near miraculous) event that a starter would still be in at that point in today's baseball, it is impossible to imagine a manager daring to leave him in the game at that point, whoever he was. There were also three check swings that were called balls where the batter so blatantly went around that I was embarrassed for the umpires. These were all on what would have been third strikes, and probably added 5-7 pitches to Koufax's total. The Twins sent up a left-handed pinch hitter to face Sandy Koufax trailing 2-0 in the 8th inning of Game 7 of the World Series. I think those are all the notes I took on the game.

Maybe I will do this on some other historic games. I am curious about it. However, it just demonstrates how this insidious number of the pitch count has totally taken over the way people like me experience baseball games. The whole drama and mental focus of the middle innings now is how many outs can the starter get through before he hits his number and has to leave the game. There is no chance of his having to gut out a nine inning--let along extra-inning victory, and will likely be afforded the opportunity to finish nine innings once or twice a year, and then only if he encounters no trouble--literally nothing goes even slightly wrong--over the last two innings. I dislike this. However, I have to end the post now or it could be another week before I finish it...

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