LONGSHOTS: Baseball’s conventional wisdom is for the birds
by Dave Long
As you may know, I hate it when people do something just because someone else trendy does it. And if you don’t know it, let me tell you, I HATE it when someone or some team does something just because someone else trendy does it.
It happens all the time in the copycat world of sports. Especially when one team wins in a certain way and, next thing you know, imitators pop up all over the place. I guess it makes sense, if what they’re copying is an innovative breakthrough that can make your team better. Like when Dallas got great draft after great draft after they began using those newfangled computers in the 1960s. It gave them a competitive edge, so others followed.
It also made sense when teams like the Packers, Chiefs and Eagles copied the 49ers as they mowed teams down through the ’80s with Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense. Of course they were led by coaching descendents of Walsh and his system, plus it also made even more sense for Kansas City after Joe Montana moved to Arrowhead rather than play second fiddle to Steve Young.
Where the rub comes in for me is when people do it because someone else is doing it, regardless of whether it’s the trend that’s great or it’s really personnel-driven by guys who would win with any system — as I suspect Montana and Jerry Rice would have. And then there is when people don’t do something because the trend says you can’t win that way — like the current hue and cry about Michael Vick. It’s the same thing they said about Fran Tarkenton when he came to the NFL in 1961, incidentally.
The charge said you can’t win with a quarterback who doesn’t stay in the pocket, and it was led by his own coach. That was ornery Norm Van Brocklin, a legendary pocket passer if there ever was one, who led the Eagles to the NFL in 1960, then retired to become head coach of the expansion Minnesota Vikings (which shows just how different those days are from today). But Tarkenton took a ragtag bunch of retreads to respectability quickly. Much of the thanks went to his uncanny scrambling ability that was born from the necessity of having to get away from a steady stream of defenders that always seemed to be in his pocket.
He was never able to get the Vikes past respectability and he was traded to New York for (gulp) three first-round draft picks, which also would never happen today. It gave Minnesota the infusion of talent it needed, which was still there when Tark was traded back four years later. While he never did win the big one, he did go to three Super Bowls, retired with more TD passes than anyone and changed the position by pioneering the ball control passing game and quarterback mobility that were vital to the West Coast offense and, oh by the way hallmark of the way Super Bowl winners Elway and Young played.
I always took Tarkenton’s rebuke to the trend-followers as a victory for those who think there are more ways to skin a cat than what prevailing wisdom says. And while football has its share of them, it pales in comparison to the way baseball just follows the leader. From the ludicrous practice of dusting off the guy who steps in after someone just hit a home run to the dangerous practice of drilling a batter the inning after someone on the other team was hit by a pitch, copycats of baseball conventions drive me crazy.
And nothing makes me crazier than the LaRussafication of baseball. That’s where managers remove pitchers based on a “middle man in the sixth, set-up guys in the seventh and eighth, closer in the ninth” formula rather than how the guy in the game is currently throwing. Every time a manager does it, which is 999 of 1,000 times, I feel like Moe in The Three Stooges when someone says, “Niagara Falls!!!!!
Thus you can’t image the delight with which I watched the Red Sox’ implausible comeback on Sunday when the Orioles snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. The implosion that turned a 5-0 lead into a 6-5 loss happened thanks to the over-managing of one Sam Perlozzo after he inexplicably removed Jeremy Guthrie with one out in the ninth. As soon as he did it, I said, “Great! Now they at least have a chance.”
It was inexplicable because in getting just three hits and no runners past second base, the Sox hadn’t been able to lay a glove on the kid all day. He’d thrown just 91 pitches and his crime before getting removed was inducing a pop-up 35 feet from home plate that keystone cop Ramon Hernandez couldn’t come up with on a windy day. Does that sound like a guy who’s juiced? Not to me. Yet, out came Sam, because LaRussa’s manual says that’s how you handle a staff.
This came a few days after red-hot F-Cat starter Jesse Litsch was lifted after seven innings with a NO-HITTER in progress! Yes I said a no-hitter. Since I’m not nearly as dumb as I look, I do understand pitch counts are done to protect the arms of young pitchers in the minors and that the object is to win. So managers follow the manual because they believe it gives them the best chance to win, which the Cats did incidentally when three guys combined to pitch a one-hitter in getting a 5-1 win over Bowie.
In fairness I’ll also tell you that on the same day Litsch was yanked, old friend Derek Lowe took a shut-out into the ninth and lost 3-0 when Florida’s Josh Willingham hit a three-run homer on his 94th pitch. His manager is another old friend, Grady Little, who you may remember stuck with Pedro Martinez in the most devastating loss in Red Sox history. And it was done despite a pile of computer printouts that said he was alarmingly ineffective when his pitch count got up over where it was as he started the eighth of game seven in the 2003 ALCS. So I do realize it can backfire on you either way.
But I say micro-managing is counter-productive. It doesn’t instill confidence in young pitchers or teach them how to battle when adversity strikes. Thus it runs the risk of developing pitchers who are soft. I’m not asking managers to treat pitchers like Bear Bryant treated the Junction Boys. I just want someone to prove to me that a system where managers follow the dictates of prevailing wisdom wins more games than when they have the common sense to stick with a red-hot pitcher to close it out, as Perlozzo absolutely should have done with Guthrie on Sunday.
Dave Long is host of Home Team Saturday with Dave Long and Company, 10 a.m. to noon each Saturday morning on WGAM (1250 AM in Manchester and 900 AM in Nashua).