1) Interesting story on ESPN.com today about 64-year old Dave Karaff, the scout who discovered Albert Pujols and now stocks shelves at Wal-mart. As author Wright Thompson tells it:
“Scouting for his favorite team was a dream job, one he took seriously. For 130 or so nights a year, he rated players. He went everywhere. Three years before he was fired, for instance, he was assigned Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, half of Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. The highway was his home. His car logged more than 40,000 miles a year.
"I will say one thing. If there's anybody that can stand there and tell me truthfully this is what they thought he'd do, I would call them a liar to their face and never flinch."
-- Dave Karaff about Albert Pujols
Mostly, he charted people who'd never spend a day in the big leagues. Then there was this young man in Kansas City. Albert Pujols. He had obvious skills. The Cardinals' scouting form gave players a grade between two and eight, Karaff says, with each prospect getting a present and future score in each category. A "five" is considered major-league average.
"I probably made him a six hitter future," Karaff says, "but he probably was a four hitter present."
The rest, of course, is history. Though he slipped to the 13th round of the 1999 draft, Pujols made it to the bigs in 2001, won Rookie of the Year and now has 250 home runs in just six seasons. He is arguably the most feared hitter in baseball. He's a superstar.
And Karaff? He was fired in 2003. The team decided to go in a different direction, and there was a massive shakeup in the scouting department. Lots of people were left to wonder what they might have done better. Karaff figured he should have sold his players harder.
"That was probably a weak point of mine," he says. "I sold them on paper, but I don't think I did a good job talking them up. Until the end. If I'm gonna struggle or if I've got a chance to lose my job, I'm gonna put 'em on the line. That's what they want you to do."
A particularly unfortunate turn in the story concerns Pujols, who criticized Karaff for failing to accurately predict how good Pujols would be:
“the slugger, for instance, told The Kansas City Star: "He said I wasn't going to make the big leagues. That's why he got fired."
He told USA Today : "How can you draft a guy and say you don't know if he's going to make the big leagues? All of a sudden, the next year (I'm) in the big leagues, and he wants to take all the credit."
Why a guy who is already an all-time great would still be bent out of shape about this is utterly beyond me.
2) Is the NBA making an image comeback? SI’s NBA preview issue this waxes rhapsodic about the new Holy Trinity of Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. Chris Ballard writes: “…these guys aren’t mere products of shoe company hype, they’re actual super-talents on and off the court, dynamic self-aware and sexy. Did we mention sexy?”
Ballard points to, among other things, their exemplary comportment during the world championships this summer:
“Wade came off the bench without complaint, Anthony led the team in scoring, and James selflessly took up the role of playmaker. And there was not a single embarrassing international incident to report (unless you count the pick-and-roll defense in the semifinals against Greece).”
In the November issue of Esquire magazine (HT: Big House Dog), Tom Chiarella pens an in-depth profile of Washington Wizards’ great young guard Gilbert Arenas, in the form of a lengthy psychological assessment, complete with dream sequences, observational entries and overall assessments. Arenas comes across as an idiosyncratic guy in some ways – he likes to sleep on the couch, for example, obsessive about Xbox 360, and an incredibly hard worker and determined competitor.
Arenas may be the best young player in the league other than the above-named threesome (arguably better than ‘Melo), having finished fourth in theleague in scoring and going toe-to-toe with Le Bron in a tremendous first round series last season. article
“The subject presents divergent sets of behaviors that suggest traditional pathologies, and their concurrent presence—well, that might make you think he's flat crazy. But there is no acceleration to his madness, no manic upward slope, no crashing depressive spiral. The collections, the isolation, the aggressive tendencies, the endless training—they focus him, shield him from distractions, toughen him up. And while all that may make him a little nutty, it also makes him really, really good.”
After an endless stream of negative coverage of NBA players and their attitudes over the past decade or so, this is good pub for the league’s young superstars, and for the league’s image.
3) From the pet peeve department – the same issue of SI drops this little comment about next summer’s NBA free agent class:
“Almost invariably, a contract year brings out the best in a player…”
Hogwash, I say. Just off the top of my head, I can think of a bunch of guys whose first year after they signed a lucrative, long-term free agent contract was their best ever, or started a run of fantastic seasons, or both.
Some examples: Barry Bonds 1993; Greg Maddux 1993; Roger Clemens 1997; Randy Johnson 1999; Steve Nash 2004-05; Shaquille O’Neal 1996-97.
This is one of those things that is repeatedly endlessly, an implicit knock on players being motivated by anything but money. Baseball Prospectus did a study of this issue for its book, Baseball Between the Numbers, and found some bump in players’ performance in their walk year. But nothing to justify the outrageous overstatement of the effects of free agency on player productivity.
4) The Free Press reports today that Jim Leyland is thinking of juggling his lineup. You know where I’m going with this: it just doesn’t matter, at least not in the way baseball managers and scribes tend to think it does. The big move Leyland’s planning on making: moving Carlos Guillen from fifth to third, and Sean Casey from seventh to fifth in the lineup. Now, Guillen batting third does make sense. But, not because it’s coming in the middle of a series and will “shake things up.” It’s a good move because you really shouldn’t have arguably your best hitter batting fifth instead of third. The one thing batting Guillen fifth is most likely to do compared to his hitting in the three hole is to cost him a plate appearance. There is really no evidence that lineup configurations matter except insofar as you ensure that your best players get the most potential trips to the plate.
As for Sean Casey, Leyland was batting him third until he got hurt two weeks for no good reason at all: Casey has been a below-replacement level player for the Tigers (translation: WAY below average), and it’s only because he plays a defensive position associated with a lot of offense that Leyland regards him as a middle of the order guy. The problem is, he hits more like a 1970s shortstop than he does a 2000s first baseman.
That, I suppose, along with the fact that Casey’s a left-handed hitter in a predominantly right-handed lineup which, again, might matter if Casey could actually hit.
As an aside, the bizarre story of Craig Shelton’s flame out and demotion has still not been adequately explained.
5) Albert Pujols’ surly disposition has been getting a lot of attention lately. The latest installment comes from today’s Chicago Tribune, where Paul Sullivan writes:
“Try to imagine how much fun Sammy Sosa would have had if he'd only had the opportunity to play in a World Series with the Cubs. St. Louis slugger Albert Pujols, arguably the best player in the game, is quickly establishing a reputation for himself as the anti-Sammy. And surprisingly, he doesn't seem to care.”
Sullivan recalls St. Louis Post Dispatch columnist Bryan Burwell’s attack on Pujols a couple of weeks ago:
“For some odd reason,
Pujols has once again turned the NLCS into a joyless pursuit of excellence
rather than an extraordinary opportunity to display his singular
greatness," Burwell wrote. "He comes to the ballpark every day and
treats people with a needless surly demeanor.”
Sullivan does quote Pujols as saying that he cares about the 25 guys in the locker room and wants to win a ring as badly as anyone, despite what people might think about him.
But Sullivan concludes with a caution:
“Pujols may be the
most feared hitter in the game and there's no doubt he's one of the most
intense competitors in professional sports. But so was Sosa during his prime,
and he still managed to enjoy being the center of attention during big moments
Pujols could learn a lesson from Sosa, or he can continue to morph into the next Barry Bonds.
It's all up to Albert.”
One of the reasons discussions of “character” in sports bother me so much is that they are so dependent on whether a player treats the media well. You could be a raving asshole in your personal life, but if you give the media the time they want – you’re a good guy, a character guy and if you don’t, you’re an attitude problem. Who, other than the privileged reporters – the 100th of 1 percent of Americans who actually get to go into the locker room after a game – could possibly give a shit about this particular metric of human decency – cooperating with the media?
Other than how Pujols answered a reporter’s questions after a game would anyone know that he was engaged in a “joyless pursuit of excellence” rather than an “extraordinary opportunity to display his singular greatness.” Is Burwell really suggesting here that Pujols should want to come through in the post-season for the sake of his reputation, rather than because he wants to win for himself, his teammates and St. Louis’s fans?
Honestly, does Burwell or Sullivan think the fans notice, or care? Does Pujols’ presumably sour disposition affect his play on the field? If you could show me that he’s signing fewer autographs, or yelling at small children behind the dugout – I’d be a little more moved by this sort of stuff. I don't personally appreciate Pujols' treatment of Dave Karaff, noted above. But, this type of story is just the worst, most self-absorbed crap that the sports media has to offer up.
As I noted in a piece I wrote back in May, Barry Bonds surely has many faults. But the media’s problem with him has always been that Barry is too proud to submit himself to the often insultingly simple-minded and substantively empty interplay of ballplayer and reporter. It says nothing intrinsically bad about Pujols that he, too, may choose not to play along.