MEMORIES OF LOST WORLDS (Occasional Sports Moment #23)

Here’s to the stoics:

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First, a fun fact, from an appreciation of Sandy Koufax that is worth reading in full:

A commenter at Joe Posnanski’s site who calls himself Moeball wrote that he had looked up famous pitchers’ best half decades, and none ever won half of his games in which his team had provided him with two runs or less…

Except for Sandy Koufax. From 1962–1966 he went 27–24 when given 2 runs or less of support. He’s the only regular starting pitcher in history to be able to do this. He’s the only one who even comes close to being .500. He did a better job of “pitching to the score” in a low scoring game than any other pitcher in major league history. And it’s not even close.

Of course, that raises the question of why the Dodgers played so poorly behind Koufax.

One reason is that the Dodgers weren’t terribly good batters in general. Their only .300 hitter in 1965 was Drysdale, whose seven homers put him close to the team leaders in that category, who hit merely twelve.

But another reason Koufax won so many 2–0, 2–1, and 1–0 games was that the Dodgers would go out drinking the night before he pitched.

If the starter the next day would be merely Drysdale, Osteen, Johnny Podres, or Don Sutton, they’d get their sleep.

But if Sandy were going to pitch tomorrow, well, you were a Los Angeles Dodger, it was the 1960s, and the night was young.

Reading the whole article, I realized that Koufax walked away from baseball at 30, after going 24-7 and winning the seventh game of the World Series on two days rest, for basically the same reason that Steffi Graf walked away from tennis at 30, two months after winning the French Open.

It was this: The only part of the game they liked was the game.

I write as someone who never had the good fortune to see Koufax pitch and failed to sufficiently appreciate Graf when she played (too damn good to root for…I’m trying not to make that mistake with Serena Williams, who enjoys and embraces the limelight Graf and Koufax disdained, and who will, at 34, attempt to match Graf’s Open-era record of 22 major titles this weekend).

But I still find it worth commending those for whom the fortune was nice–but no more than that. And for whom the fame meant nothing at all.

It was just something they had to endure to ply their trade and secure the life they really wanted. Not for them, I suspect, an Age where walk-off victories in major league baseball games played in June are celebrated like last inning heroics in the World Series and mid-round victories in tennis majors routinely end with players prostrate on the court, convulsed in sobs.

I don’t know either of them personally. But I like to think I know how they feel about this, the Age of Celebration. You know–of, by and for Celebrities Celebrating Themselves.

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24 thoughts on “MEMORIES OF LOST WORLDS (Occasional Sports Moment #23)

  1. You’re welcome to it…Just click on the title of the post and it will isolate into a separate page. Then block, copy and past the url address that comes up at the top of the screen for that page…Let me know if you have any problems!

  2. NDJ

    Below follows a very, very simplistic overview of things, but an accurate overview. It is NOT an argument against Koufax’s greatness.

    • Dodgers Stadium in Chavez Ravine was one of the most lopsided parks in history IN FAVOR OF THE PITCHERS.

    • The 1960s was one of the most lopsided eras in history IN FAVOR OF THE PITCHERS.

    • From 1945-62, the MLB batting average hovered around .260. The league slugging percentage was over .390 ten times.

    • From 1963-72, the MLB batting average hovered around .245. The league slugging percentage NEVER reached .390 and was only over .380 once!

    • That’s HUGE!

    • This was the era of Koufax Drysdale Gibson Marichal Bunning McClain etc.

    • Things did not return to ‘normalcy’ until 1973.

    • In the seven years before moving into Chavez Ravine, Koufax’s ERA was around 4.00 and his W-L was 54-53. This is NOT the pitcher that ANYONE talks about when they talk about Sandy Koufax.

    • In five years in Chavez Ravine, Koufax’s ERA was around 2.00 and his W-L was 111-34. This is the pitcher that EVERYONE talks about when they talk about Sandy Koufax.

    • That’s HUGE!

    Koufax retired after the 1966 season, just as the hitting was about to bottom out. Had he pitched the next six years (1967-72), he might have been even better than 111-34!

    Basically, Koufax found his groove at exactly the right time, but there’s always those first seven seasons to think about . . .

    EDN

    • Yeah, the linked article made some of those points. I just highlighted the “well, but” portion, which is comparative…as in, it’s one thing other great pitchers might have matched in his own era, but didn’t.

      My big beef with the current era is that pitchers simply aren’t allowed to finish the game, unless they have a no-hitter (or at least a shutout) going. That speaks to a different culture.

      Just sticking to baseball (and there are comparable complaints to be made about almost every sport): I wrote a few years back about the contrast between the famous Warren Spahn/Juan Marichal duel which went many extra innings (and did not shorten either man’s career, which is the modern argument for babying arms and egos) and a performance by Max Scherzer, who came out after 7 innings against the Red Sox in the playoffs.

      Scherzer celebrated in the dugout as though his team had won (they were ahead by 3-4 runs and Detroit had a “great” closer). You can guess how that ended: with the Red Sox winning the game and turning the whole series around.

      And I do think Koufax walked away at least in part because he didn’t enjoy fame. (That’s definitely why Graf walked away…she hated being there for the coin toss: “Let’s play already.”)

      On the other hand your point is a strong one in favor of Hank Aaron being the greatest home run hitter, as opposed to Ruth or Bonds, who played in especially home run friendly eras. (Though you could counter argue that Ruth’s era became homer friendly only after he made it so…so many fun arguments to be had!)

  3. 1. It’s not innings pitched; it’s pitches per game. They usually go hand-in-glove, but not always. The impact and potential damage to arm/shoulder increases exponentially after x number of pitches. That’s why modern managers almost always remove a starter after 100 pitches.

    2. Bill James did research years ago and, iffen my memory serves me well, found that every pitcher who had pitched over 200 innings in one season (1) prior to the age of 25 (or so) had a relatively short career.

    3. Christy Mathewson once remarked (and this is a decades-old memory again) that when he was active, pitchers would “bear down” (pitch hard) only a few times per game. Whereas by the 50s, pitchers bore down on every single pitch!

    4. Despite nostalgia and all the BS that usually comes with it, old-time baseball owners did not treat their players like pals. They paid them dirt and treated them the same. Modern players are far more appreciated and better cared for, as humans and as investments.

    The movie EIGHT MEN OUT only touches the surface of what a cheap, lying, manipulative bastid Charles Comiskey was. The question shouldn’t be “Why did the Sox throw the Series?” It should be “Why didn’t more teams throw the Series?”

    PS: I am a lifelong Phillies fan. I was talking with a couple of other Phillies fans who lived through the ’60s and ’70s a few years ago and we were picking our All Time Phillies All Star Team. Guess who our unanimous first choice was . . .

  4. I agree modern players are better cared for because they have a strong union aka players association (one of the few left in the U.S. and the only one that’s ever existed in sports). That’s all to the good. I haven’t watched non-playoff baseball as much in the last five years, but up to that time at least, it was rarely about pitch counts or innings as such. It was about formula. The starting pitcher has gone 6 (or maybe seven) innings, so it’s time to go to middle relief. The middle reliever has gone 1 or two innings and it’s time to go to the closer. (That’s an oversimplification, because there’s always the “one batter” pitcher who comes in to get one guy because he’s tough on lefties or righties but not both, etc. etc….all formulas have variations!)

    As a Braves fan, I admit I may be slightly bitter about this “formula” because Bobby Cox insisted on managing to it whether his bullpen was any good or not. Can’t tell you how many times he yanked Maddux or Glavine when they were cruising through seven only to watch the bullpen blow it (it very nearly happened in the one Series they won…somehow Mark Wohlers managed to preserve Glavine’s shutout though I confess I didn’t see it because I was so angry I turned the TV off and thus missed the last inning of the only World Series the team I’ve followed since I was nine years old has ever won).

    My own formula would be to make sure my best pitchers were allowed to finish six or eight games in the regular season (as Glavine and Maddux actually were..that’s how insane Cox’s post-season style was) so they’re prepared to finish a game in the post season if need be. I can certainly see the wisdom of not pitching guys 300 innings a year simply because you don’t know whose arm will hold up and whose won’t. (Who will be Nolan Ryan and who will be Ron Guidry for instance). But I think we’ve gone too far the other way when a Cy Young winner like Scherzer is doing leaping chest bumps with his teammates because he got through seven innings of a playoff game, evidently unaware of the even greater joy that had been brought to the opposing dugout by his removal from the game.

    Phillies MVP? I dunno but I hope it was Dick Allen.

  5. Starting pitchers have to pitch five innings to get the win. They are usually lifted after five or six innings for two reasons: high pitch count (lots of strikeouts and walks) or losing their stuff.

    Changing pitchers several times also works against the batters.

    The modern closer is probably the most overrated player on any team. He comes into the 9th with his team ahead and has to get three outs to be credited with a Save. That’s NOT even close to the original definition of a Save. But that’s another story. (I think it’s addressed in MONEYBALL.)

    Cox probably didn’t yank them because of formula, but high pitch count.

    Unanimous first choice (among three guys) for All Time Phillies Team? Pete Rose because every real Phillies fan knows he made winners out of us. Hell, he made winners out of everybody. But that’s another story …

  6. On Cox…It was formula. Believe me. (I can’t speak for other teams of that era and I know pitch count is an obsession now but it wasn’t totally set in stone back then. Cox in the post season was rather like a basketball coach we had at FSU in the nineties. There was a running joke that the surest way to get yourself taken out of a game was to make two jump shots in a row. He coached on the theory that you must be due to miss…at least that’s what it looked like. It’s great, as long as you don’t want to win championships or anything. We managed to have four first-round picks in the starting lineup one year but it only got us to the Elite Eight. Very Cox like.)

    Sorry…I thought from your referencing the sixties and seventies I was supposed to be looking that direction. But I totally buy your logic!

  7. Understanding Nolan Ryan’s career is probably worthy of a book. Two things stand out:

    1. He didn’t pitch 200 innings in one season until he was 25.

    2. In 1973-74, Nolan Ryan historically over-pitched 658 innings and was 43-32. The following years 1975-76, he pitched 482 innings and was 31-40.

    In 1977, they over-pitched him again (299 innings) and he was 19-16. The following year 1978, he pitched 234 innings and was 10-13.

    He was used more modestly thereafter, but he was just another good-but-not-great starter (173-147) who rang up a lot of strikeouts. An argument could be made that 1973-74 killed the career of potentially the greatest pitcher in history. We will never know …

    • Looks like I should have gone with my first instinct and used Tom Seaver. (Consistently in the 250-280 IP range for his first decade, starting at 22, with plenty of fine work after that, etc.) But I’ll stick with NR and say not a lot of guys who have their arms managed to lengthen their careers will ever pitch into their mid-forties like the consistently overworked Ryan.

      In any case I sort of agree with your main point that arms should be managed to some degree. Makes perfect sense.

      But the only way NR was ever gonna be the greatest pitcher in history was if he cut down the walks….which also would have spared his arm.

      Main point of my original post, though, was that sports is not entirely about man’s (or woman’s )ability to be slotted into a spot and asked to perform Job X for X number of years and accrue X amount of wealth. I get it, but I suspect we might be the first generation to have forgotten that the really valuable point of sports–past all the Jamesian analysis (which can sound a lot like Henry Ford’s)–is to test the heart. I count myself a reluctant capitalist but that doesn’t mean the “investment” impulse should dominate literally everything.

      • Seaver was a much better pitcher than Ryan. Why? because he didn’t give up all those damn walks!

        If today’s pitcher exerts himself/risks his health and future ten times as hard in three innings as Christ Mathewson did in nine, whose heart’s being tested?

        PS: Testing the heart sounds, um, nostalgic.

        • You’re taking Mathewson’s word as a scientific fact? (I do like that he talked himself down rather than up, but his assessment sounds like the modesty he was known for.)

          P.S.: Really? You’d rather watch robotics?

          • Tooshay! Other older pitchers have said much the same thing.

            I met Carl Hubble when I lived in Scottsdale. He said he was glad that he pitched when he did because modern baseball looked like too much work.

            PS: I saw that movie! Hugh Jackson, right?

  8. Pick ten of the movies that I have suggested and then suggest ten for me (that I can find). Then we can have an online discussion about them that will make a nifty post for your site and mine.

    • Good idea, except I can’t “find” any movies. I have to buy them (which I’d be happy to do except I have no money!)….Maybe I can start working on a list of five, though….Maybe we should pick a theme?

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