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Archive for August, 2010
When Lou Piniella announced that he was walking away from the Cubs before the end of the season, I saw Buster Olney assert on ESPNnews that Piniella was a Hall of Fame manager, which seems to be a pretty common sentiment. I may have too much of a stake in this, since my very first online writing gig was a guest column for Neyer in 1997 comparing the Mariners with the early 80s Expos, but I really don’t get it. Posnanski, as usual, I think gets it right:
OK, I’m going to probably tick off some people here … but I guess I should probably just say this. I kind of think Lou Piniella is overrated in every baseball way a man can be overrated. I mean, he’s a perfectly fine manager … but you would think the guy was Joe McCarthy by the way some people talk about him. He’s like 100 games over .500 in his career — and that 2001 Mariners team was 70 of those games. He won that awesome World Series in Cincinnati — fabulous there — and he managed Seattle to that cool 116 win season and playoff heartbreak, he managed Chicago to a couple of playoff heartbreaks … and that’s really about it. The Yankee years weren’t much, the Tampa Bay years were pretty disastrous, he leaves the Cubs a mess and before the season’s even out. I’m not saying he’s a bad manager — he’s good — but he doesn’t seem to me to be THAT good.
Let’s go through them one at a time:
Yankees: You could see evidence of his best quality as a manager: his ability with hitters. Not only did he get some great years out of his stars, but he got impressive production from some marginal talents like Dan Pasqua and Ron Hassey. On the other hand, you can see some of the flaws you’d see throughout his career — his impatience with pitchers and a consequent inability to turn good arms into pitchers, and some flailing around with roster spots that don’t have a clear good player attached. On balance, I think you’d have to consider the performance of these teams mildly disappointing; 1986 wasn’t bad, but it’s hard to explain why a team with as much front-line talent finished behind the Brewers in 1987. Sportswriters have largely given him a pass because the Yankee organization was so chaotic, and I accept that to a point — it wasn’t easy to make a commitment to a young player in that context. But I think the causal link goes both ways; Piniella never fully unlearned these bad habits.
Reds: Obviously, the 1990 season is at the core of his HOF case –taking a perennial underachiever to a world championship is the kind of accomplishment that defines a great manager, and let’s say that sweeping the heavily favored A’s makes up for an otherwise unimpressive postseason record. But there wasn’t much follow-up.
Mariners: Here’s where the case has to rise or fall. The 2001 season is the other core component of his HOF case. As I’ve argued before, it was actually a long-term disaster for the Mariners organization, because the strategy they used that off-season — refusing to sign a genuine superstar in his prime and giving the money instead to some veterans of modest accomplishment — is normally a disastrous one. But it worked, in part, because Bret Boone suddenly turned into Joe Gordon and Mark McLemore turned into Tony Phillips, and Piniella obviously deserves a lot of credit for that. And because of whatever combination of an extreme pitcher’s park, Bryan Price, and his mellowing he didn’t have the problems with thin pitching that have otherwise undermined his teams. Again, it would have been nice if it was backed up — the failure to win the division in 2003, in particular, doesn’t look great — but a huge year. 1995, too, is a Hall of Fame type year, taking a perennial underachiever to the playoffs and winning a round.
But here’s the problem: on balance, I think it’s clear that his Mariners teams underachieved. For a forthcoming post on the recent documentary about the 1994 Expos, I’ve been thinking about the best teams of the post-Big Red Machine era. I don’t think any of them — ’84 Tigers, ’86 Mets, late 80s A’s, ’98 Yankees — had the kind of front-line talent that Piniella’s Mariners did in the late 90s. You have three inner-circle Hall of Famers — one who may have the case for the greatest player ever when he retires, another who has a good case as one of the 4 or 5 best pitchers of all time — backed up by another Hall of Fame caliber hitter in Edgar and a fifth outstanding player in Buhner. In 1998, this was good enough to finish 11.5 games behind a Rangers team that had some terrific hitters but also had Rick Helling as its #1 starter. I agree with Bill James that only the Giants of the 60s have ever done less with more, and they faced much stiffer competition in the Koufax/Drysdale Dodgers and Gibson/Brock/Boyer/ultimately Cepeda Cardinals. Piniella’s not the only reason — or perhaps even the primary reason — for this egregious underachievement, but there’s no way in hell that this represents Hall of Fame caliber managing.
Devil Rays: Obviously, he was the wrong manager for this job — working with young players, and especially young pitchers, has never been his strong suit — and he did nothing with a team that didn’t have a lot to work with in any case. The only other thing to add is that Piniella’s advocates make a big deal of his raw win total, but when evaluating that you have to take into account the roughly 200 wins here, which don’t constitute any actual value. Take those away, and he’s about even with the late Ralph Houk, who has two World Championships but doesn’t exactly have a long line of Hall of Fame advocates.
Cubs: A classic manager’s pattern here — improved the team considerably in his first two years, followed this up with one disappointing season and one catastrophe. This is the kind of thing a good manager does, but that’s it.
Another way of looking at it is that the clear Hall of Fame managers of this era are Cox, LaRussa and Torre, and Piniella’s record is vastly less impressive than any of them, especially the first two. I’ll bet Scioscia and Francona will have more impressive cvs when all is said and done too. Piniella is more like Jim Leyland, who I don’t see getting a lot of Hall of Fame support — and I’d vote for Leyland first. Dusty Baker may finish with a better record. I don’t see a Hall of Fame manager here.
Shorter Beverly Willett: New York should have kept its anachronistic divorce laws so that more women could go through the immensely painful, expensive, and futile attempt to maintain a marriage with a jerk who treats them horribly.
Despite admitting that he has not purchased a compact disc in years, General David Petraeus revealed Wednesday that he is “an Enya guy,” referring to the new-age Irish musician.
“I do like Celtic music. And Enya is among those,” the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan told Fox News Channel’s Jennifer Griffin in an exclusive interview.
Petraeus said he has not had the opportunity to enjoy his favorite artist in the battlefield, saying he has not listened to music since he’s been on the ground in Afghanistan.
“Maybe over time I’ll get to that,” he added.
Maybe the Taliban will decide that killing Enya fans isn’t worth the trouble?
UPDATE [by SL]: I can’t resist once again quoting one of my favorite hatchet jobs:
Pondering the fate of post-September 11 pop, everyone predicted what they already wished for–Slipknot undone, Britney in hiding. What happened instead was the unthinkable–sales of Enya’s first album since 1995 spiked 10 months after release. (And she thought that movie where Charlize Theron fucked Keanu Reeves and died of cancer was a promotional coup!) Two years in the making with the artiste playing every synthesizer, the 11 songs here last a resounding 34 minutes and represent a significant downsizing of her New Age exoticism since 1988’s breakthrough, Watermark–it’s goopier, more simplistic. Yanni is Tchaikovsky by comparison, Sarah McLachlan Ella Fitzgerald, treacle Smithfield ham. Right, whatever gets folks through the night. But Enya’s the kind of artist who makes you think, if this piffle got them through it, how dark could their night have been? Like Master P or Michael Bolton only worse, she tests one’s faith in democracy itself.
Whenever you think he’s exhasuted every possible way of being an asshole, Jim Bunning can always suprise you.
If I understand Krauthammer correctly, I think I have to conduct a public opinion survey before I can decide whether or not this is racist. Omitted from the former: an explanation of what non-bigoted motives might lead to intense opposition to the Burlington Coat Factory Islamic community center.
Since this discussion of a conflict between the authors Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult and the New York Times jumbles some valid and some silly critiques together, I thought I’d try to untangle them:
- The underlying ressentiment on the part of the two bestselling authors doesn’t inspire a lot of sympathy. There are two good reasons for venues like the Times to focus (to the extent that the diesgnation is meaningful) on “literary” fiction: it’s likely to inspire the best criticism, and it’s most valuable to readers to alert them to novels they wouldn’t otherwise know about. Discussions of more “commercial” fiction can be valuable too, but the priorities of the Times book review strike me as right. There aren’t many venues for the discussion of “literary” fiction, and authors like Weiner and Picoult are hardly obscure whether or not they get reviewed.
- Weiner does make a good point about the kinds of genre fiction the Times examines. I can’t make any judgments about her fiction specifically, but it does seem right to say that discussions of “commercial” fiction in the Times focus on genres that are primarily read by men. I think she has them dead to rights there — it’s hard to justify special sections for mystery or detective fiction but not, say, popular family dramas.
- On the other end of the spectrum, as Gawker unkindly but not inaccurately notes Picoult invoking Dickens and Shakespeare in this context is pretty risible. It is of course true that there’s no necessary contradiction between popularity and artistic merit; many more recent examples from Kind of Blue to A Fine Balance show that masterworks can appeal to broad audiences. I don’t think this fallacy is all that widespread, but it is a fallacy. But of course the logic cuts both ways; popularity doesn’t require any durable artistic merit either. Selling lots of books doesn’t make James Patterson Charles Dickens, and selling lots of records doesn’t make Jessica Simpson Miles Davis. I haven’t read Picoult’s books, so I can’t say anything about whether they merit more discussion from critics, but the fact that they sell a lot is neither here nor there. That she seems to be demanding not merely reviews but nice reviews (apparently these atypically biting takes from World’s Nicest Reviwer Janet Maslin doesn’t count) gives away the show.
- Is the Times book review unduly focused on male writers from Brooklyn? Possibly! It would require a much more systematic analysis than I’m willing to do. I can say that coincidentally four of the five works of fiction I’ve read most recently — Marcy Dermansky’s very well-turned noir Bad Marie, Anne Lamont’s Imperfect Birds, Lorrie Moore’s typically exceptional A Gate at the Stairs, and Alice Munro’s Selected Stories — happen to have been written by women. All but the first*, for what it’s worth, received positive notices in the Times. Munro is another good example of the fact that major work can appeal to a broad audience, and the first two blur lines betwen “literary” and “genre” fiction, but I if I had to guess I don’t think the attention paid by the Times to female “literary” novelists is especially low. Scanning my shelves for other recent favorites, I would also say that other important authors such as Enright, Gaitskill, Zadie Smith have also gotten a reasonable level of engagement. Whether it’s high enough is a matter of judgment, but at a minimum I don’t see the kind of easy prima facie case you would have against, say, the Washington Post op-ed page. [*Dermansky, generously responding to my inquiry, notes that Bad Marie was discussed in this Times article and did receive a variety of other prominent notices.]
- The really glaring bias in terms of what the Times chooses to review, I think, is just straightforward backscratching. The multiple reviews given to Lee Seigel’s witless anti-internet rants and Joe Lelyveld’s still-widely-ignored memoirs still strike me as much more egregious than any attention paid to hot young Brooklyn novelists.
I hope that Stephen Strasburg’s injuries turn out to be relatively minor and he’s ready to go next year. But for the reasons cited by Posnanski and Neyer, I continue to think that paying the kind of money the Nationals did for Strasburg is a really, really bad bet. Most young pitchers won’t be able to sustain a major league workload, and even if they have short-term success most pitchers who start off very well as starters typically aren’t the ones who enjoy the greatest careers.
UPDATE: Oh no. The one ray of hope is that many pitchers have come back from Tommy John surgery, and in terms of his long-term success missing a year isn’t the worst thing in the world. Also, Posnanski put this more politely toward the end of his post, but Rob Dibble is an utter yutz.
For whatever reason, our spam filter has kicked into overdrive in the past few days. It has, I kid you not, defined both Michael Berube AND David Horowitz as spammers. I leave the punch line to your fevered imaginations…. In any case, if you’re not seeing your comments pop up, send an e-mail (address on sidebar) letting me know, and I’ll try to solve the problem.