Friday, April 2, 2010

Say It Ain't So Joe

"In the Spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love." - Alfred Lord Tennyson

"and baseball" - me

You do not have to be a baseball fan to know that recently Joe Mauer (great baseball name), Minnesota Twins catcher, just signed an 8 year, 184 million dollar contract. Yes folks, that's 23 million dollars a year, or $142,000 per game, or $47,000 per hour, or $568.00 per catch (average 250 pitches in a game). One would think that these numbers would require their own "contract", but actually in baseball, the 184 million signing is just called an "extension" of his contract. I tell you.

Here's the intriguing part, he probably could have signed for more money if he bid himself out to the major market teams on the East Coast. To his credit, he's a local guy from St. Paul, his family is settled, and he likes going to his cabin in the North woods of Minnesota every chance he gets. Joe, you like the North? Make Canada an offer for the Province of Manitoba. No don't stop there, how about Hudson Bay?

I haven't seen him play much, but when I did he seems to play with confidence, natural ability and a selflessness not necessarily attendant with today's players. In other words, he's not New York Yankee material. He has averaged 162 games over the past 6 seasons and is a .350 hitter - very, very good. The catcher is the "quarterback" of the defense. Most catchers will determine the type and sequence of pitches thrown to a particular batter, direct field placement of players, and coordinate overall strategy with the manager. They are a combination of field general and CEO. They are required to know their pitchers' strengths and each opposing batters' weakness. They have to have mental book on every player they face throughout the season. In fact, since quarterbacks no longer call their own plays, the catcher is probably the most mentally difficult position to play in all of sports.

But what about the pitcher?

After all, catchers, well, just catch the ball. The catcher can call for a split-fingered fastball, but the pitcher is the one who has to execute it. I don't know how much the Twins' pitching staff gets paid in a season, but I would think they wouldn't cover Joe's salary.

How does his contract compare to past players? Consider pitching. Smoky Joe Wood in 1917 made $15,000 per year; adjusted for inflation that comes to $419,000 in 2010.In this century when baseball always seems to threaten not having one 20 game winner, one year, Smoky Joe won 45 games and lost 5. In 1917, he had an off year, he only won 16 games, but 10 of them were shutouts( no runs scored against him). Pitcher Walter Johnson (The Big Train), no slough himself, said, "no man pitches faster than Smoky Joe Wood". And take Cy Young (The Cyclone), by the numbers the greatest pitcher ever, he was a 30 game winner over 5 seasons and held the strike out record for over 55 years. In 1890, Cy was "sold" to the Cleveland team for $300.

In 1960-1963, Ted Williams (The Splendid Splinter), Willie Mays, and Micky Mantle crashed through the $100,000 per year ceiling. To watch Williams at the plate was an appointment with grace. His strikeouts had more natural refinement that most players' hits. Their 2010 equivalent salaries would equal $150,000 today. Of course, the average ticket price at Fenway Park in 1960 was $1.76 - so everything is relative.

You can argue (and in baseball - argue we love to do) that early last century, the players really weren't that good. Today's good players hit in the 300s and play 162 games per season. Pitchers throw in the mid-80 to 90 mph range. They are in better shape and play deeper into their careers.

I would not argue that.

Although it is difficult to compare with any certitude, Cy Young in the 1930s was taken to a ballistic factory and had a pitch speed measured at 92 mph. I don't know for sure, but pre - radar gun, his throwing velocity must have been compared with a gunshot (why else at a ballistic factory?) Talk about faster than a speeding bullet. The average season for the first half of last century was 152 games.

I think we tend to view the past in sepia. The players back then had a lot of beer consumption (even during the games), chewing tobacco, and no spring training; we have Oaklies, spandex, Red Bull, free weights, and well, human growth hormones. But answer this. Best against the best. Why did it take so long to break Cy Young's strikeout record, Babe Ruth's multiple records, and so far no player has hit Williams .400 for the season since 1941?

But I'm arguing against my feelings.

If the Twins want to pay; good luck Joe. Baseball season will start in a few days. One of the things I love about baseball is the traditions. Prior to every game played, at every level, the opposing coaches meet the umpire at the plate to review the rules of the game. With sweeping arms, the umpire points out the chalk borders running down the field by first and third base. If seen from above, the borders represent a diamond. At the apex of the diamond swats the catcher. Not always, but many times, the umpire will finish the conference with the command, "Have fun and enjoy the game." The chalk frames a picture of summer. Joe Mauer at it's apex.

This Easter on ESPN at 8pm, Red Sox vs Yankees. I don't ever remember watching baseball on Easter and probably won't watch the entire game, but may tape it. I want to see if the Easter Bunny comes in as a reliever. May be interesting if the Bunny's performance is dependent on a contract "extension."

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