Thursday, November 8, 2012

Three Strikes'll Send You to the Dugout, or San Quentin

In 1994 my home state of California passed an initiative measure that was officially titled “Three Strikes and You’re Out.” The Three Strikes Law, known in other states by the more technical sounding name of the Habitual Offender Act, ostensibly has nothing to do with baseball. It establishes increased penalties, (25 years to life imprisonment in California’s case) for a criminal who commits three felony crimes. I began thinking about this law recently because two days ago, amidst all the Presidential hoopla, California voters passed Proposition 36, which altered the existing Three Strikes Law to emphasize punishment of violent offenses, and to shorten prison terms for those who did not commit violent crimes.

Intrigued by talk of the ever-controversial Three Strikes Law, and in clear baseball withdrawal with the World Series over, I began to consider the apparent baseball connection to this law. I did a bit of research and was slightly surprised to note that not only was “Three Strikes and You’re Out” the wording that actually appeared on the ballot, such laws, no matter their official title, are referred to in legal jargon by the acronym TSAYO. Even stranger to me was the fact that the connection of a law that shapes lives, deaths, and demographics is so explicitly based on an arbitrary rule in baseball.

One scholarly paper I found referred to this connection offhand, as if it were entirely incidental, mentioning that, “President Bill Clinton received lengthy applause during his State of the Union address when he touted the law with the catchy baseball name.” Or labeling a chilling graph about convictions like this: “California ‘Strikes Out’ 4 Times as Many Persons As All Other 3-Strikes States Combined”

A less scholarly but still extensively detailed article described how baseball players are allowed three strikes in an at bat before they are out as a preamble to explaining how “the same concept is invoked in the language of habitual offender laws, as three strikes laws are more properly known, as in ‘three strikes and the offender is out of society.’”

So, this strongly enforced and significantly impactful law is based on the logic of the baseball plate appearance. It was at about the time I realized this that I began to ask an absurd number of rhetorical questions about the history of the traditional inputs to the baseball plate appearance and its influence on the Three Strikes Laws.

The history of the three-strike strikeout has remained remarkably stable throughout baseball history, with only one real blip, as Joe Posnanski noted in his profile of deadball hurler Old Hoss Radbourn: "in 1887, for one year and one year only in the National League, they changed the rules so that it took FOUR strikes to get a strikeout. Could you imagine, say, Justin Verlander having to deal with that? Hey Justin, we changed the rules. It’s four strikes for a strikeout now. Yeah. But it’s also five balls for a walk. Go on, have some fun out there."

The number of balls that equals a walk, however, has not remained static throughout baseball history. It was not until 1889 that the various baseball associations and leagues agreed that four balls would equal a walk. In the preceding decades as many as nine balls had been required for a batter to get a free pass, with the number gradually decreasing starting in 1880 before settling in at the “natural” number of four.

So here begins the long chain of rhetorical questions:

What if, like balls, the number of strikes had varied a lot in the late 1800s? What if that magical year of 1887 had become the norm, and five balls and four strikes remained the rule. Such a change would not have inherently altered the structure of the game. After all, the only reason four and three seem “natural” is because they are what we have grown accustomed to.

How would the game have changed?

But perhaps even more meaningfully, how would our modern approach to crime legislation through Three Strikes Laws be different?

If batters and pitchers lived in a four-strike world, would cops and criminals battle in one as well?

How would it affect our perception of crime and criminals?

Would we have Four Strikes Laws instead of Three, or would we have none at all?

The almost certainly rhetorical question I have struggled with the most however, is whether the only reason we have Three Strikes Laws at all, and the argument, misery, and debatable justice they imply, is because of an arbitrary rule in what was once a children’s game. If so, what does that tell us about the role of baseball in shaping America’s cultural and political mindset, and what does that tell us about our democratic, legislative, and judicial systems?

As I said, these are rhetorical questions, I truly do not have answers to them, and to me at least this is somewhat troubling. Chime in with comments if you think you have answers, or even if you just have more questions.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Now Batting, Michael Jordan

The logical thing for me to write about at this stage would of course be the actual baseball season that just concluded, specifically the New York Mets’ performance therein…but I’m in a fairly good mood right now and I don’t want to spoil it by thinking about that. Instead, with the NBA season upon us, I’d prefer to retell one of the stranger stories in the history of basketball or baseball.

By the start of the 1993-94 season, 30-year-old Michael Jordan had played in the NBA for nine years and was well on his way to earning the status of legend. Jordan had been an All-Star in all but his first year, a three-time MVP and a seven-time NBA scoring champion, and he had just led his Chicago Bulls to an unprecedented third straight NBA title as well as leading the league in more categories than I can count. So it’s hard to overstate the shock he caused by first retiring from the NBA the day before the start of training camp and later announcing that he had signed a minor league contract with the Chicago White Sox. A possible equivalent might be if Barack Obama left the presidential race to pursue his dream of becoming a movie star.

Affected by the recent murder of his father, who had always dreamed of his son playing professional baseball, Jordan set out to prove that his talent transcended basketball, beginning the story of perhaps the most famous career minor league ballplayer of all time as he reported for training camp in March of 1994. (The Bulls and White Sox, then as now, were both owned by Jerry Reinsdorf, who continued to honor Jordan’s Bulls contract during his time in baseball.) After starting at right field for the White Sox in the Windy City Classic exhibition game against the Cubs (Jordan, batting sixth, went 2 for 5 with 2 RBIs), Jordan joined the Birmingham Barons of the AA Southern League.

Jordan (play) fights with a teammate.
Jordan’s presence focused the sports world’s attention on Birmingham as the Barons consistently played to sold-out crowds. Despite lacking any other notable players (probably the best-known Baron that year besides Jordan was manager Terry Francona, who would go on to manage at the major league level), the Barons were frequently featured on shows like “SportsCenter” and were the center of attention in Birmingham as well as other Southern League towns like Greenville and Huntsville, the latter the eventual champion of the division in which Birmingham finished last. The Barons may have been the most talked-about minor league team in history. Francona and his players, none of whom became particularly successful in the majors (with the sole exception of Steve Sax, who at 34 was winding down a lengthy and mildly impressive major league career), seem to have mostly been bemused by the whole spectacle. “We couldn't just go somewhere with him because it would be a mob scene,” shortstop Glenn DiSarcinia (who never made it higher than AAA Nashville) later recalled. "The whole place would just be staring at him, like he was a rare zoo animal."

Besides becoming involved in a real, live media circus, DiSarcinia and the rest of the Barons also had the opportunity to see a sporting legend brought down to the level of mere mortals. As it turned out, despite his powerful height and build and his tremendous athletic ability, Jordan was a fairly awful baseball player. In 436 at-bats for the Barons, Jordan hit a mere .202 with an OBP of .289 and a slugging percentage of .266. While committing 11 errors in the field and striking out 114 times, Jordan hit just three home runs. His impressive total of 30 stolen bases was more than balanced out by the 18 times he was caught stealing. All told he boasted the lowest OPS (on-base + slugging) of any player on the Barons with more than 15 at bats and in the league as a whole, Jordan's .556 mark did not even breach the top 100. Even on a team lacking all distinction Jordan stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, and people who showed up to watch him were always impressed by how unimpressive he was (props to Joseph Heller). “Michael Jordan has no more business patrolling right field in Comiskey Park than Minnie Minoso has bringing the ball upcourt for the Chicago Bulls,” concluded Sports Illustrated (albeit before the Barons’ season officially began).

Jordan’s year with the Barons wasn’t all bad. His teammates, who were initially shocked by how bad he was, noted his steady improvement over the course of the year and marveled at the work ethic and competitive drive that had fueled his rise to the top of the NBA. For the Barons, the most impressive part of Jordan’s time with the team was how well he integrated himself into the clubhouse. While the trappings of fame followed him wherever he went, Jordan seems to have genuinely wanted to become a big league ballplayer on his own merits and took great pains to avoid letting his celebrity affect his role on the team. Jordan befriended several of the players, showing particular interest in those from the Chicago area, and participated in team bonding activities including the occasional pick-up basketball game (one can only imagine how that must have gone).

“Even though he wasn’t a great baseball player, he was a great role model,” DiSarcinia concluded. "If he came out as an 18-year-old I didn't have any question that he would make the big leagues -- the work ethic, the hand-eye coordination. It was just a little too late for him."

Perhaps recognizing this, Jordan eventually concluded that continuing in the minors was the wrong move for him. After a stint with the Scottsdale Scorpions of the Arizona Fall League, where he batted .252, Jordan announced his return to the NBA on March 18, 1995 with a two-word press release: “I’m back.” He took the court the next day for the Bulls (wearing jersey number 45, his number with the Barons—the iconic number 23 had been retired in his absence), and the rest is history. (Of course, this being Jordan, said history includes two more retirements.) It should be noted that Jordan’s baseball career did form the background to the plot of Space Jam, so at least it wasn’t a total loss.

Michael Jordan is far from the only athlete to show interest in multiple sports. For example, in 1995 the Montreal Expos picked a high-school catcher from California, Tom Brady, in the 18th round of the draft. However, Brady wisely chose to become a star quarterback instead, first with the Michigan Wolverines and later with the New England Patriots. There are athletes who have played multiple sports at the highest level, but most of these tend to be historical footnotes (much like the USFL or the California Golden Seals). Two exceptions stand out in baseball. Jackie Robinson’s stellar and historic baseball career has tended to overshadow his tremendous athletic achievements; at UCLA, he lettered in four sports (baseball, basketball, football and track), a feat unparalleled in UCLA history before or since. And Jim Thorpe, who played six seasons in the 1910s for the Giants, Reds and Braves, has become known as one of the greatest athletes in the history of American sports. In addition to baseball, he received two gold medals in track and field at the 1912 Olympics, enjoyed a long and successful career in collegiate and professional football and even briefly dabbled in basketball. However, rather than opening a chain of steakhouses and watching the money roll in from his Air Thorpe sneakers, Thorpe had his medals revoked (for playing baseball for money at a time when all Olympians were amateurs) and died in poverty. Sometimes life isn’t fair.