Here's a Joe Morgan chat send-up from May 31 that I serendipitously found in an old email to my friend Mike. It's like running across a fine bottle of wine and then guzzling it down before the just-removed cork is dry. Or better yet, it's like finding an unopened package of baseball cards-and it had better be a Topps package-with the brittle stick of gum still enclosed and then crunching down on the splintery shards. God, I remember cramming 10 or 12 sticks of that gunk in my mouth when I was a kid. Joe's words are as multicfacted as those broken gum fragments I masticated in my youth. Manna from the gods.
That is why I have chosen to compare Joe today to the stuff of legend, to Arthur, king of the Britons. Like Arthur, Joe is on a valiant quest. His Holy Grail is truth, truth in baseball analysis. He has a legion of men to go into battle with him. His knights of the round table are the analysts who we love most. His Camelot, the cathedral ballparks from whence he dispenses his wisdom. Like Arthur, his quest is arduous. Like Arthur he had a sprightly wizard befriending him: Merlin for Arthur, Jon Miller for Morgan.
Like Arthur, his appointment is suspect: Arthur removes the sword from the stone or water or a pawnshop, thereby signifying that he is the one true king. Or as Arthur himself puts it, as told to Monty Python, "The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. THAT is why I am your king!" Of course, one may respond, "Oh, but you can't expect to wield supreme executive power just because some watery tart threw a sword at you!" Joe Morgan was a great ballplayer, but his odometer is stuck on 1975 (yeah, so, I like mixed metaphors). However, the watery tart has chosen to bestow the keys to the Hall of Fame upon him as well. With this power he shall in turn enshrine forever the fine knights that served with him battle yea so many years ago when a game of base be of far superior quality to yon contests of today.
Arthur eventually had his sword caste unto the waters from whence it came by Sir Bedivere -he was too damn lazy to do it himself-, "take thou Excalibur, my good sword, and go with it to yonder water side, and when thou comest there I charge thee throw my sword in that water, and come again and tell me what thou there seest.." Sir Bedivere saw a barge of luscious ladies awaiting Arthur's transition to a Coor's Lite commercial dimension. Now, Joe is, as far as I know, a happily married man, but as the season ended it seemed that the golf course beckoned and we have yet to see his like hence. Like Sir Bedivere we await the mythical return of our Arthur, Joe Morgan, and the halcyon days of ballgames of yore.
Jesse, NH: Is there a reason you're always so bitter towards the Red Sox? Any time I've heard you refer to them its been critical. What gives- you guys won the World Series, so why so bitter?
Joe Morgan: Have them win something and I'll congratulate them.
File these under "Things were better when I played because I say so"
George(New York): Hey Joe. I was watching the 1975 Series on ESPN Classic and the players looked leaner, faster, and more graceful. Routine plays really looked routine and the players overall looked more athletic. Do you agree?
Joe Morgan: I agree the players were more fundamentally sound. The players now are bigger and stronger, but baseball is a game of skill and not necessarily one of strength. Strength allows you to hit more homers, but it doesn't allow you to play the game more gracefully or better. [But don't players who hit more HRs help their teams win and, therefore, play "better"? "Grace," on the other hand, is a matter of preference. How graceful were Greg Luzinski and Poog Powell?]
Clint (Danbury, CT): You were one of baseballs best alltime hitters. What young pitcher today do you think that you would have the most problems hitting against?
Joe Morgan: Probably, being left-handed, Randy Johnson. Other than him I can't think of anyone who could be that difficult...
File under "Damn Lies and Statistics!"
Denis (Dover, NH): How valuable is a great base stealer to a ballclub? Statistically, a player needs to be around 70% successful not to hurt his club, but what about the effects on the opposing pitcher? ...
Joe Morgan: ... Stats can't be used to measure the effect of a base stealer because he changes the defense and the pitching patterns. [Can't you measure the effect of that?] A great base stealer should steal 80 percent or more, I think. Seventy percent is a good number, but that's not how you measure his effect. You measure the intangibles of what he brings to an offense. [Now, how do you measure intangibles again?]
John (Atlanta): Joe, Why does the stolen base seem like a lost art. You just don't see the prototype base stealers that used to be able to a dramatically effect the outcome of a game. Where have all the Ricky Hendersons, Willie Wilsons & Vince Coleman's gone, Joe???
Joe Morgan: I don't think people have been teaching people to steal bases. Very few can teach it. Secondly, players have bulked up and been swinging for the home run. Others think the stolen base hurts them. But the teams that have won championships have stolen bases, not in a big way, but in a way to manufacture runs... [People won World Series with small ball, including stolen bases, back when it took 35 HRs to lead the league. Now those outs are just to valuable to give up. By the Rickey Henderson hasn't gone: he's in Boston]
Robb (Tacoma, WA): Mr. Morgan, What do you think statistics can tell us about a ballplayer, and what do you think their limitations are? What about some of the more complex measures like Bill James's "Win Shares", as opposed to traditional stats like RBI?
Joe Morgan: If you understand stats, then they can tell a lot. Not all are meaningful, though. You have to understand them. When I look at stats of a team, there are a lot I can see in the stats that are meaningful. By the same token, a lot of stuff is rhetoric. They have different things, like quality starts. I don't agree with it. I think a quality start is when you keep your team in the game, at any score. As long as you are in the game and give your team a chance to win, that's a quality start. I don't know who made up a quality start. The stats that are meaningful to me for pitchers are wins and losses. For a hitter, it's run production -- runs and RBIs. With anything else, the stats can be distorted. You can make a .300 hitter look like a good player, even though he doesn't score runs or drive in any runs. What does a player do to help win the game? That's more important to me. Batting averages and ERAs are overrated. They don't win a game for you.
[Kind of like telling your grandfather about gas prices being lower in 2002 dollars than in 1950 dollars. All he can talk about is how gas was a quarter and who came up with quality starts anyway. That's the one stat that he points to, one that has been so universally disdained that it disappeared from sight years ago (along with the equally ill-conceived GWRBI). Yeah, some stats are not what they appear and what a player does to help win IS the most important thing. But that can be, to a certain degree, measured; if not, then we have to rely on anecdotal evidence from the Lil Joes to tell us who's a good ballplayer. Heaven forefend.)