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Friday, February 17, 2017

The Return of Spring and the Best Baseball Season Ever

            Around these parts, winter is still here, but it’s not as bad. This morning was in the 20s, and the wind wasn’t howling and shaking the trees like it has in other days these past few weeks. Frankly, a sweater was enough to walk to the car and then “brrr” as I put the heater and the mp3 player on until things warmed up for me to feel comfortable on my 30 minute drive to work.

            With only 1 month left of winter and a Florida vacation to see friends in Jacksonville looming in 20 days, the thoughts of flowers and new life are everywhere. The snowdrops (a type of flower, which is pictured above) are pushing through, and if Facebook is to be trusted, so are the crocuses, but I haven’t seen them in our yard. Frankly, I just haven’t had time. There’s just too much have to do work going on.
Because of what I don’t have time to see because of that nagging, pestering work and grading, there are other things I haven’t seen. Word around the campfire also says that the great-horned owls who have nested with their babies at Ephrata Park are back to fornicating again because there’s pictures of one of these birds standing guard at the tree’s natural opening. This must be investigated, so when I’m driving home from work today at noon, I will be there with my trusty camera hoping to see them or him or her standing guard in that tree opening today.

            A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.
            But in my annual tradition of the end of the hot stove watch, there is the all-important return of the baseball season, though if truth be told, I don’t turn MLBTV off all winter. Now, with February’s end in sight and the groundhog not to be believed, there is that great truth to this period of time and that is that real, new baseball is back. Florida and Arizona are hopping because pitchers and catchers have reported, so life is good.
            And if baseball is back, that means that the first quasi-meaningful games of spring are back soon. This year, that also means that the United States is trying to compete in the World Baseball Classic, but let’s be honest; we don’t have the desire to rally around the flag or field a team like the Dominicans. Ownership and agents aren’t fielding Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, so is this really our best foot forward? Nevertheless, we do have some good players if you follow the game. These include Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, Buster Posey, Eric Homser, Daniel Murphy, Andrew McCutchen, and Giancarlo Stanton. The bullpen looks good with Andrew Miller leading a lot of decent 1-inning guys, but the starters look relatively above average at best when looked at. One year and a contract run doesn’t make a career great player headed for the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

            So what does make a great baseball player? Apparently, it’s being a silent leader and showing up to work every day to just be great. It’s building a body that is so strong that he was once turned down for the role of Tarzan because he was too jacked. It’s putting up with the media's obsession with the star-struck, drunken, womanizing hero / lout of the world, who batted in front of him while he, Lou Gehrig, quietly hit 464 home runs by 1936, which was before his age 34 season. His age 32 season would be one of his most memorable seasons ever since it was his Triple Crown year. Nevertheless, he did have “better” statistical years. This says something since his slash-line in 1934 was a .363 batting average, 49 home runs, and 166 runs batted in, which stood as the defining offensive moment of a baseball season. That year, his on-base plus slugging (OPS) was 1.172, which was the 33rd best season ever for this number, statistically speaking. Of course, that’s behind 4 seasons where Barry Bonds wasn’t being pitched to because he found the Fountain of the Clear and the Cream, but that too is neither here nor there.

However, by real standards, that wasn’t his best season by far. Neither was his Murderer’s Row season in 1927 when he had an OPS of 1.239, which is the 24th best OPS ever (that year, he also had an 11.8 Wins Above Replacement, which was tied for the 7th best season ever). The closest a current “all-time great” stands to that (Mike Trout, who really is that awesome) is 10.8, which says he’s good for 11 more wins over an average fill in guy over a 162 game season. What this means is that for an 89 win team in 2012, if the Angels don’t have Trout, they have a losing record.
Getting back to baseball stats (Sabrmetrics) in his Historical Abstract on baseball, author and baseball genius Bill James asks:

"A good statistical analyst in studying the statistical record of a baseball season, asks three or four essential questions:
1) What is missing from the picture?
2) What is distorted here, and what is accurately portrayed?
3) How can we include what has been left out?
4) How can we correct what has been distorted?"

For me, that leads us to Lou Gehrig’s 1938 season where he hit .295 with 29 home runs and 114 runs batted in. Looking at Gehrig, he hadn’t produced numbers that low since 1925 when he first started to become the Iron Horse, which came with Wally Pipp sitting out a game because of a headache. This led to Gehrig never being replaced in the lineup until 1939 when he gave up baseball due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, otherwise known as ALS and also known by the name Lou Gehrig’s disease.
            According to the NIH, ALS is “a rare group of neurological diseases that mainly involve the nerve cells (neurons) responsible for controlling voluntary muscle movement. Voluntary muscles produce movements like chewing, walking, breathing and talking. The disease is progressive, meaning the symptoms get worse over time. Currently, there is no cure for ALS and no effective treatment to halt, or reverse, the progression of the disease. ALS belongs to a wider group of disorders known as motor neuron diseases, which are caused by gradual deterioration (degeneration) and death of motor neurons. Motor neurons are nerve cells that extend from the brain to the spinal cord and to muscles throughout the body. These motor neurons initiate and provide vital communication links between the brain and the voluntary muscles. Messages from motor neurons in the brain (called upper motor neurons) are transmitted to motor neurons in the spinal cord and to motor nuclei of brain (called lower motor neurons) and from the spinal cord and motor nuclei of brain to a particular muscle or muscles. In ALS, both the upper motor neurons and the lower motor neurons degenerate or die, and stop sending messages to the muscles. Unable to function, the muscles gradually weaken, start to twitch (called fasciculations), and waste away (atrophy). Eventually, the brain loses its ability to initiate and control voluntary movements. Early symptoms of ALS usually include muscle weakness or stiffness. Gradually all muscles under voluntary control are affected, and individuals lose their strength and the ability to speak, eat, move, and even breathe. Most people with ALS die from respiratory failure, usually within 3 to 5 years from when the symptoms first appear. However, about 10 percent of people with ALS survive for 10 or more years.”
       If we look further on their page, we see that symptoms include:
·         fasciculations (muscle twitches) in the arm, leg, shoulder, or tongue
·         muscle cramps
·         tight and stiff muscles (spasticity)
·         muscle weakness affecting an arm, a leg, neck or diaphragm.
·         slurred and nasal speech
·         difficulty chewing or swallowing.

        Statistics show the 14-15,000 people have the disease. One of them is former NFL hero Steve Gleason, who just released a documentary about his story.
        For me, this forces a statistical adjustment, which I do on the grounds that Lou Gehrig achieved baseball excellence with ALS running through his body.
Thatyear, Gehrig didn’t get his first hit until game 6, but he was dead to rights when he slid into third base and called out. He didn’t get his second hit until game 9. His first multi-hit game was game 10, which left him with a .097 batting average before he went hitless in game 11. His first home run was in game 16, which brought him up to a .154 batting average. He would hit 28 more that year, hitting his final 1 in game 152. Prior to that and even with 2 hits in game 12, he was the worst batter in the American League with a .133 average.
Then something began to happen. Maybe it was the insults and fan’s mocking of both him and the team, but Gehrig turned it around. Pride in a person’s heart can do this as can strength in a person's convictions. As Gehrig began to compensate and work through his challenges, his May batting average was .368. In comparison, the best batting average for 2016 was DJ LeMahieu hitting .348 for the year. We haven’t had a year that good or better in baseball since 2004, when Ichiro hit .372 while setting the all-time single season hit record.
According to biographer, Jonathan Eig, this wasn’t all good. Eig stated, “Gehrig felt no pain, nothing to cause him concern, but there is evidence to suggest that he noticed the subtle change in his body… When the nerves fail to properly stimulate the body’s muscles, the muscles atrophy. As the muscles in Gehrig’s legs, shoulders, and arms began to atrophy, home runs became fly outs. Triples became doubles. Doubles became singles. He began to think about hitting for average instead of power.”
Nevertheless, even that didn’t always work.
“When he gets these attacks, they take his breath away and he has sharp pains through the small of his back. He can’t straighten up, but he nettles when someone says he has lumbago or something else that is chronic,” one writer stated after watching Gehrig get injured on the base paths after hitting a double that season.
As Lou faced the future of his consecutive game record and the ultimate disrespect some would feel for his lack of playing time, even his wife asked him to consider sitting out a game when it would be him controlling the equation instead of someone else or his health. However, Lou Gehrig would play it out for 2,130 games, only choosing to sit after being complimented for making a routine play. After all, a great man doesn't receive average compliments.
After that retirement would come the diagnosis, that July 4th quote, and his positive letters back and forth to his wife and his neurologist, which made him believe he could beat ALS, even when the game was already decided.
Through the last days, Gehrig remained tough, and his play showed how determined he was to win and to bring the Yankees back to some kind of glory, willing his body and especially his legs to carry on while battling with the press.
“I can’t see why anyone should attack my record. I have never belittled anyone else’s. I intend to play every day and shall continue to give my best to my employers and the fans. What about the guy who pays $1.10 to see the game? What if I sit on the bench and say I’m resting?”
However, life began to pile up on Gehrig. His manager, Joe McCarthy noticed his changes. In addition, he didn’t start the All-Star Game. After, this he fractured his thumb, and the x-rays noted other fractures, which had never been diagnosed as well.
“There’s always something sad about watching a ballplayer age. It’s like seeing a preview of death, played out pitch by pitch, game by game, in front of thousands of spectators. He loses a bit of speed. His eyesight fades just enough that he can’t see the spin on the ball and can’t judge the necessary split second whether it’s a fastball or a curve headed his way. The snap action in his wrist slows just enough that he can’t catch up to the fastest of the fastballs. Little by little, it all gets worse, and a player’s mind invariably turns toward retirement. But Gehrig wasn’t suffering from the normal aging process of the athlete. His skills were fading much faster.”
However, before the season would end, Gehrig would have several 4 hit games. He would also hit his 23rd career grand slam, a record at the time and pile his numbers up. There was even a point where he had improved so much since his dismal beginning of the season where he was hitting .300, which is baseball’s mark of excellence. However, the spike in drive faded, and Gehrig pulled himself out of the lineup before batting, keeping his streak alive only because of a half inning of defensive work.
While the season’s end saw the Yankees beat the Cubs in the World Series, capping off a comeback season for the record books, Gehrig went 4 for 14 in the contest, playing averagely at best. While his teammate’s celebrated, Gehrig got drunk on triples of hard liquor, suffering over the new normal in his life.
Had ALS never come, Gehrig’s energy would have been channeled into greatness, but instead, he willed himself to be very good. In fact, for many players, he would have had a career year. Nevertheless, for Lou, very good wasn’t good enough. 
He was more than good enough for the Hall of Fame in 1939. What's more, he is a hero and a role model for the courage he faced that year and the hindsight we can all get from his numbers, which reflect the true performance of the all-time best.

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