Review: You're Missin' a Great Game © 1999 Tim Harrison

Every fan has a favorite team. Not a favorite franchise, but a favorite team. Like the Maris-Mantle Yankees of 1961, the Amazin' Mets of '69, the Refuse-to-Lose '95 Mariners, or that bunch of castoffs that made up the '93 Phillies. A team which distinguished itself from all others over the fan's baseball-watching lifetime, and is the basis of comparison for every team that came before or since. For me, that team is the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals, otherwise known in the day as "the runnin' redbirds." The Cardinals played a style of ball that would be unheard of in today's homer-happy era of bandbox parks and 200-home run lineups; they didn't have power. Instead, they had speed, brains, and leadership—from manager (and one-time General Manager) Whitey Herzog.

Whitey just published a new book, titled You're Missin' a Great Game—From Casey to Ozzie, the Magic of Baseball and How to Get It Back. It's loaded with insights, anecdotes, observations, and criticisms of the game of baseball and some appealing ideas on how to address the sport's growing problems. Even if you don't like his style of play, if you're more interested in the Earl Weaver school of baseball that's so prevalent today, there's no denying that Whitey Herzog is one of the smartest people in the game. The people in charge of baseball—the owners, the commissioner, the union — would do well to read this book and pick Whitey's brain on the issues confronting them, but sadly, that probably won't happen.

This is Herzog's second book, and due either to a better co-author (Jonathan Pitts) or simply having more time to write (the first was written at the peak of his managerial career), it's infinitely better-written than the first one (1987's White Rat). Some of the same anecdotes are in both—tales of Casey Stengel and Gussie Busch, for example — but You're Missin' a Great Game goes much deeper than a stroll down memory lane. There are plenty of insightful and entertaining glimpses into Whitey's playing and managing career, and for an old Cards fan like me, that would be enough in and of itself. (I especially appreciate the venom Whitey discusses the 1985 World Series with. In a classic "if only…" hindsight musing, during a three-page chronicling of the infamous Don Denkinger call in Game 6, Whitey suggests the best move for him to have made then would have been to take his team off the field in protest. "50,000 fans and announcers and reporters would've been raising all kinds of hell. I'd have been fined, suspended, maybe had my ass run out of baseball. In other words, it would've been everything my game needed to kick it in the rear.") He talks about trading fan favorites Ted Simmons and Keith Hernandez and why he did it; dealing with the baseball-wide drug problems in the late '70s and early '80s with John Mayberry (whom he doesn't name, but is clearly referring to), Lonnie Smith, and Hernandez; getting the most out of two very different pitchers, Joaquin Andujar and John Tudor; the remarkable achievements of Willie McGee— who still gets standing ovations in Busch Stadium 14 years after his MVP season—and Tommy Herr, who drove in 110 runs with only eight home runs. ("If there was one guy I managed that I would want hitting for me in the stretch drive, in August and September, it'd be hard to pick between George Brett and Tommy.") There's a whole chapter devoted to "The Wizard," Ozzie Smith, and what the Cardinals had to go through to get him. Ozzie may have been the only player in baseball history with a no-trade clause in a one-year contract. Whitey makes a case for Ozzie to have been the league MVP instead of Andre Dawson in 1987; and offers up some criticism of Tony LaRussa's handling of "Number One" during Ozzie's last big league season, benching him more often than not in favor of newly acquired Royce Clayton ("Ozzie was their best shortstop anyway…he hit in the clutch all year. [They] were 31-19 with Ozzie starting and 56-55 with Royce in there. You could win with the man today. As for the heir apparent, Clayton is a Texas Ranger now").

But the real meat of the book is in the examination of the game today. Today's Major League game is nothing like Whiteyball. It's nothing like the John McGraw style of "scientific baseball." Today's game is based on the home run and the almighty dollar, and nothing else. Agents have too much power, Whitey says, and players have lost their incentive to play for anything but their own numbers. The root of the game, the thing that makes baseball more American and more appealing than any other sport, is being lost, and Whitey spends a great deal of time examining why that is and what to do about it.

In the chapter called "Ten singles," Whitey opens a section with a paragraph that reminded me that I'm not he only one in the world that appreciates the deeper game of baseball:

Almost without exception, today's teams plan around the big blast. The goal is excitement. But the thing people don't realize is, even in a homer-happy era like ours, the long ball only happens a few times a game. The rest of the time, the players are mostly just standing around. Why? Well, if I'm on base, and the next guy up is liable to hit one into the next county, why the hell should I run? If I get thrown out stealing, that costs us a run. No, sir, I'm going to sit on my ass for the team. That's the exact attitude a real fan can't stand.

Right on, Whitey. That's a powerball attitude, a game philosophy that figures on the Goliaths prevailing more often than not over the Davids. Whitey has it right: when baseball is at its best, "the players look like you and me; they ain't mutants. John Kruk, David Wells, or Tony Gwynn could be poster boys for hot dogs and beer. [1982 NLCS & World Series MVP Darrell] Porter looked like my accountant. If Orel Hershiser mowed your lawn, you'd probably just give him a tip and go on with your day. Those are the guys the fans love. The key to baseball is, the regular Joe can use his smarts, work hard, and knock the bigger, richer guy on his ass." In other words, America loves the underdog. But the underdog hasn't got a prayer today; the Kansas Citys and Montreals will never win another pennant unless things change.

Herzog doesn't take an "all change is bad" stance by any means; some of the things he proposes are kind of radical, in fact (like his idea for a permanent neutral site for the World Series — one of the few things regarding baseball that Whitey Herzog and I would argue about). But what he does advocate is simple: if you're going to make a change, think it through first. The owners are renowned for not doing this. Repeatedly. And then wondering how they got into the mess they created themselves. ("Typical of the owners, who have got to be dumber about their own business than any group of people I've ever seen.") If you don't think it through ahead of time, Whitey says, "you're just shooting first, aiming later. And when there's holes in the living room wall, you've got no one to blame but yourself." From the DH to divisional play to salary arbitration, realignment, and interleague play, Whitey looks at all of baseball's significant changes in the past 30 years or so and comes to the same conclusion: no one thought it through. When discussing interleague play, Whitey offers this charming metaphor: "Think about what you're doing, or today's brilliant idea is just a turd you've got to scrape out of your cleats tomorrow."

Now, there are some legitimate arguments in favor of the DH rule, I suppose, but I challenge anyone to read this book and maintain that the DH is good for the game. Whitey gives a couple of examples: "Let's say I'm managing in the NL and I'm considering a pitching change. I have to think. I don't just yank a guy when his arm is tired; I don't just leave him in when he's going good…I'm thinking, 'do I pinch-hit for him now, maybe get us a base hit, and lose him for the game? Or do I keep him in, take a chance on his ugly bat, and keep him out on the mound?' How good's he throwing? How good is my bench guy hitting? Is there time to score later, or is this our last shot?" Contrast that with this hypothetical: "Say Terry Collins has a one run lead over the Mariners in the 8th. Well, he's got Gregg Jefferies, or whoever his DH happens to be that day, batting for the pitcher no matter what. He doesn't have to worry about that. So he brings in his best damn reliever, Troy Percival, to finish the game. That's it! No tradeoffs." Or, to put it more succinctly:

Humpty Dumpty could manage in the American League. There's nothing to manage! … In the NL, you're thinking. You teach your pitchers to sacrifice bunt. You balance your batting order. You use your bench. You play for a run at a time. The good fan can take the time to learn about these things. He gets rewarded for paying attention. The owners never thought all of this through back in 1973, and they still don't realize half of what I'm saying, but the DH takes all of it away. The AL manager sits, waits and watches. So do the fans in the stands. What's so great about that?

But the decline in thinking brought on by the DH, the thoughtlessness of the balanced schedules in divisional alignments, and the insanity of the schedule with interleague play, none of these are as disastrous to the future of the game as the quagmire that is salary arbitration. Whitey has the experience of a GM as well as of a player and manager, and he knows the system. He knows that the rule of thumb is that payroll will increase from one year to the next by 18% "if you never make a change in your roster." Now, that's just nuts, and it's mostly due to arbitration. But that's what happens; that's what GMs have to avoid, more often than not, and that's why players get traded that shouldn't, get paid more than they deserve, and raise the bar for each and every middling benchwarmer in the league. Every time a team goes to arbitration, it's a no-win scenario. Whitey explains:

[The Cubs] have an attractive young player with some promise. [GM Ed] Lynch wants to keep him around a while. Maybe he just doesn't want to make the kid mad. However, Ed's got a budget he's planning. A sudden jump to a $4.5 million salary for a fourth year player would be a disaster. He has to offer a figure he knows the arbitrator won't laugh at…. So instead of offering what he believes the player is worth — $600,000 or so — he would have to offer much more than that just to stave off the high-end risk. He'd take a deep breath and offer $2 million. That's the amount the judge will pick. The ballclub "wins." The problem is, it really loses. In arbitration, the rule is simple: Even when the ballclub wins, it loses.

Moreover, continues the explanation, arbitration isn't good for the players. It's good for the stars, but "for the rank-and-file player, it's a curse." The theory goes like this: if you're a decent veteran player, a Keith Lockhart or a Doug Strange or a Pat Meares, you're valuable to your team, but not a star; your GM realizes that for the league minimum, he can replace you with a rookie from Triple-A. Rather than go to arbitration with you, you're more likely to get traded or released. Meares is a case in point, he gets cut by the Twins rather than kept at his former salary, and signs with Pittsburgh for a few hundred grand. "Arbitration is very, very harmful to the game of baseball, and we'll never get anywhere solving our problems until we get rid of it." Whitey has a couple of suggestions for how to do that, but the best and most appealing is simply to trade the union free agency after 4 years instead of 6 in exchange for the death of arbitration.

The most interesting idea Whitey brings up in the book is the notion of bonus rules. Bonus rules existed in the days before the amateur free-agent draft, and with the way things have gone with draftees like J.D. Drew and foreign talent like the Hernandez brothers, Whitey makes a good case for bringing them back into the game. In a nutshell, bonus rules said that if a team gave a player more than x amount of dollars to sign, the player was required to stay on the major league roster for two years (kind of like an extended application of the current Rule V draft rules). So in 1962, say, if the Phillies signed a guy for $30,000 and didn't keep him on the roster for the 2 years, he automatically went on waivers and some other team could pick him up. You could sign as many guys as you wanted, but you'd better have been sure you wanted 'em around right away. Here's Whitey's thought:

You'd make it $450,000 now, or half a million. Give a guy 500 grand, you have to keep him on your major-league roster for two years…. [George Steinbrenner] can still give the prospect $2 million if he wants; he can give him $5 million or $10 million or a share in the World Trade Center. You'll be able to outbid other teams for the top guys. But if you're after a pennant, you aren't going to want to carry more than a couple of those guys. That creates a natural ceiling…. Instead of Steinbrenner getting ten prospects and the Twins none, both teams might get two. That's fair! You'd level the playing field, and it wouldn't cost you a thing.

That's a good idea! You might even expand it and do away with the amateur draft altogether. Go back to depending on your own team's scouting instead of some list of rankings.

You're Missin' a Great Game has a lot of brilliant insights and a couple of not-so-brilliant ones, but if nothing else it's a thoughtful and intelligent look at the state of the game of baseball today. And the prognosis isn't good. "I'm thinking of that scene in Titanic," Whitey writes. "The boat's clipped the iceberg, but nobody really knows it yet….The man who built the ship checks the hull and tells everybody they're going to sink. They laugh it off, and before they know what hit 'em, they're all swimming in the North Atlantic." And if the commissioner, the owners, and the union want to do something about it, great. "If not, let 'em enjoy their swim. It's gonna be cold."

Whitey Herzog managed the Texas Rangers in 1973, the Kansas City Royals from 1976-1979, and the St. Louis Cardinals from 1981-1990. He won six division championships, three pennants, and one World Series, and along the way showed this fan just how great baseball can be.

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