Yankees School of Witchcraft and Wizardry


Every now and again — well, let’s face it, pretty much every day now — I get another email telling me that Vernon Wells — Vernon Bleepin’ Wells — just got another two hits with another homer with another three RBIs and so on.

The emails are from Michael Schur, Parks and Recreation executive producer, and the emails have a purpose: Michael is convinced that it is time that I just admit that I am wrong, and he is right about the New York Yankees being a magical species, not unlike house elves. He is fairly enraged that I will not just admit defeat. I picked the Yankees to collapse under their own weight this year. He thinks I’m a flat-earther who will not face the obvious truth — that the Yankees will always, continuously, endlessly, constantly, incessantly and unceasingly win forever and ever, amen. He thinks it is way past time for me to admit it doesn’t really matter who is actually ON the Yankees — doesn’t matter if every single baseball player on earth gets hurt and they are forced to have Shecky Greene hit second and play centerfield. In this case, Mike is convinced that Shecky Greene would hit .289 with 24 homers and win a Gold Glove.

His latest evidence for this Yankees sorcery is, of course, Vernon Wells, who at this moment for the Yankees is hitting .299/.349/.526 with nine homers — he’s ninth in the American League in home runs per at-bat after a career of never once being in the Top 10 in that category. He is roughly on pace for 100 runs and 100 RBIs, something he did only once, a long time ago, when he was 24 and full of promise.

Vernon Wells, the last two seasons, made a compelling a case for being the worst semi-regular player in baseball. I don’t think it was quite a winning case — it seems to me there are probably a half dozen players like Adam Dunn and the ever popular Yuniesky Betancourt* who were worse — but the point is he was in the discussion.

*Four times this year — FOUR TIMES THIS YEAR — the Milwaukee Brewers have hit Yuniesky Betancourt in their cleanup spot. There … um … you know … it seems … but … the thing … I’m sorry, the mind’s spluttering, I can’t even come up with a joke for this.

How bad was Wells? Well, usually you can’t define someone by a single number but Wells’ on-base percentage in 2011 and 2012 was .258. That is not just bad. That is legendarily bad. At the very core of offensive baseball is the game’s golden rule “Do not make outs.” Vernon Wells has been one of the great transgressors in baseball history.

Adding to the Wellsian knot was the seven-year, $126 million deal Toronto gave him beginning in 2008. Wells was a pretty good player in 2008, but he was also 29 years old and he only played 108 games. Bad signs sparked like fireworks. But by then the deal was signed and it was too late. He was fairly dreadful in 2009, a good player in 2010, and then the roof caved in, but not before Toronto managed to unload him on the Angels, who seem desperate to corner the market on terrible contracts. You can almost imagine an Angels-inspired movie, sort of the anti-Moneyball, with Bruce McGill as a GM shouting, “How in the heck did Philadelphia beat us on this terrible Ryan Howard contract? Were you guys even paying attention? Was the bank closed that day?”

Wells hit 25 homers for the Angels in 2011 but posted an astounding .248 on-base percentage, which was the lowest for a corner outfielder since the legendary George Barclay, nicknamed Deerfoot, posted a .241 OBP in 1904. Wells only played 77 games in 2012, hit about the same in those games, and then then Angels were so desperate to get rid of him they gave him to the Yankees and agreed to pay about 70% of his remaining contract.

It should be added that the Yankees were so injured and desperate, that they took Wells and agreed to pay 30% of his remaining salary, which still comes out to $13 million, which still would be a huge overpay for the Vernon Wells of the last two seasons.

But, Michael — a huge Red Sox fan who has watched such Yankees miracles from a front row seat — immediately predicted that Wells would end up having a really good year. His prediction was not based on Wells looking good in spring or being in the best shape of his life or anything like that. It was simple math. The Angels are in that low funk where everything they do is just kind of stupid. And the Yankees, of course, are magical.

And it seems that Michael, despite what seem to me obvious flaws in his thought process, is right again.

Not that he ever doubted it. Michael now includes a list of players in his Vernon Wells emails. You look at this list and decide:

1. Shawn Chacon. He was a generally struggling pitcher for the Rockies who in 2004 had gone 1-9 with a 7.11 ERA. The league slugged .500 against him that year. In July of 2005, the Yankees — who hovered only a few games over .500 and in second or third place all year and were desperate for starting pitching — traded for Chacon. His first start, he threw six innings of shutout baseball. His first seven appearances, the Yankees won six of them. They were battling for first place. And in mid September, Chacon threw back-to-back starts of eight innings, zero runs, as the Yankees overtook first place and, eventually, won 95 games. The league hit .225 and slugged .348 against Chacon with the Yankees.

The next year, Chacon returned to being  generally struggling pitcher.

2. Aaron Small. A Michael Schur favorite. He was 33 years old and in that same year, 2005, and he had started all of three games in his big league career. He started nine games for the Yankees and the Yankees won eight of them. In September that year, he threw a five-hit shutout against Oakland and came in against Toronto in the second inning and threw 6 2/3 shutout innings. His record, that year, was 10-0.

The next year, he pitched 11 games with an 8.46 ERA and did not pitch another big league game.

3. Raul Ibanez. One of my favorite people in the game, Raul has had a nice career, but he was 40 years old his one year with the Yankees. He hit 19 homers in 384 at-bats. But veterans will sometimes do that, you know, swing for the fences and give a team a few home runs. What made Ibanez magical was the time. In October he was like a walking miracle. Against the Red Sox on Oct. 2, with the Yankees in a huge fight for their postseason lives, Ibanez hit a two-run homer to tie Boston in the ninth then hit a walk-off RBI single to win it in the 12th.

A week later, in the ALDS against Baltimore, he pinch-hit for A-Rod in the bottom of the ninth with the Yankees down one and hit the game-tying homer. Leading off the 12th, he homered again to win it.

Three days later, with the Yankees losing to Detroit by two in the ninth, he homered again to tie the score..

For about 10 days, Raul Ibanez was Roy Hobbs. “Could this have happened on any other team but the Yankees?” Michael asks.

4. Eric Chavez. He was a terrific player as a young man, but once the injuries started it seemed like they would never end. After winning six Gold Gloves and hitting 227 homers before he turned 30, Chavez did indeed turn 30 and for the next three years he played only 64 games and hit .222 with three homers. He was thoroughly done, and then the Yankees got him, Then, at age 34, last year, he hit 16 homers, slugged .496 and helped the Yankees reach the postseason again.

5. Ichiro. He was 38 years old last year.

Ichiro for Seattle in 2012: .261/..288/.353.

Ichiro for Yankees in 2012: .322/.340/.454

6. Bartolo Colon. He did not pitch at all 2010 and had not made 25 starts in a season in six years. He made 26 starts for the Yankees and the team won more than than half of them, and while there was all sorts of talk about HGH and stem cells and various other nefarious methods that Colon might have used to get back, Michael is convinced it was simply Yankees black magic.

Now, at this exact moment, the Yankees are by any objective measure a dreadful team. Look at a typical lineup.

Leading off: Brett Gardner (CF). Missed almost all of last year with injury.

Batting second: Robinson Cano (2B). Truly great player.

Batting third: Vernon Wells (LF), who the Angels paid $29 million to go away.

Batting fourth: Travis Hafner (DH), who is 36, and hasn’t slugged .500 in seven years. He’s slugging .500 now.

Batting fifth: Ichiro Suzuki (RF), who the Mariners dumped last year. Batting FIFTH?

Batting sixth: Jayson Nix (3B). Thirty-year-old on his fifth big league team, replacing injured Kevin Youkilis who was dumped by both Red Sox and White Sox last year.

Batting seventh: Lyle Overbay (1B). Thirty-six year old on his fifth team since 2010. He’s slugging .480.

Batting eighth: Alberto Gonzalez (SS). Thirty-year-old backup shortstop for five teams, he replaced Eduardo Nunez, who was hitting .200 while replacing Derek Jeter, whose ankle may or may not be getting better.

Batting ninth: Christ Stewart (Cat.). Thirty-one year old backup catcher for fifth organization.

Now, seriously, what if that team was playing in Kansas City. Or Seattle. Or Milwaukee. Take away Cano, and you can imagine it very easily. How many games would that team win? More to the point, how many would they lose? Ninety-five? A hundred? In New York, that lineup — and a pitching staff with 41-year-old Andy Pettitte and 38-year-old Hiroki Kuroda trying to get the game to 43-year-old Mariano Rivera — is in first place with the best record in the American League.

I continue to tell Michael It won’t last. But the truth is, I’m losing faith in the science-based baseball world. I know that sooner or later, Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson and Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter will return. And, I must admit, that’s magic even I have no choice but to believe in.

Trevor Bauer says his finger will be OK for the World Series

TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 17:  Trevor Bauer #47 of the Cleveland Indians walks back to the dugout after being relieved due to his cut pinky finger in the first inning against the Toronto Blue Jays during game three of the American League Championship Series at Rogers Centre on October 17, 2016 in Toronto, Canada.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Indians starter Trevor Bauer said he expects his sliced right pinkie to heal in time for the World Series.

Bauer, of course, is a drone hobbyist and hurt his finger while fixing a drone. By the time he’ll have to pitch again he will have had nine days since his last, bloody start in ALCS Game 3. Yesterday he said “I’ll be ready to pitch in the World Series whenever they need me. I’m doing everything I can and I’ll be back out there for sure.”

Bauer reportedly suggested that Indians trainers cauterize his finger on Monday. They declined. Which is something Bauer should probably thank them for.

It’s time for Major League Baseball to take a stand on Chief Wahoo

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 06:  A fan holds a sign during game one of the American League Divison Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on October 6, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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The Cleveland Indians are in the World Series. Come Tuesday they will be on baseball’s biggest stage — an international stage — for the first time in 19 years. In honor of this occasion, I’d like to know a couple of things:

  • Does Major League Baseball believe that Chief Wahoo is a racist caricature?
  • If not, why not?
  • If so, does Major League Baseball think it appropriate for a club to have a racist caricature as its logo?
  • If Wahoo is a racist caricature and if it’s inappropriate for a club to have a racist caricature as a logo what, if anything, does MLB plan to do about Chief Wahoo?

At the outset, I’ll say what should not come as a surprise to any of you: I believe that Chief Wahoo is a racist caricature. I’ve argued it ad nauseum over the years and really don’t wish to mount that argument once again. Mostly because I think the notion that Chief Wahoo is racist is indisputable. Also, because those who do not wish to see the Indians abandon that logo never actually argue that it isn’t racist. Indeed, I’ve not seen a single convincing argument in favor of Wahoo not being racist on his own merits. Oh sure, there are lots of deflections (A logo isn’t important! Tradition is tradition!; It’s just sports!; What about that other racist logo?! My quarter-Cherokee grandma says she’s fine with it!) but no one has once made even half a case that that red-faced, big-toothed, hook-nosed, feather-wearing abomination is not, in fact, a racially insensitive caricature. I don’t think such an argument could be made, actually.

So that’s not what I’m on about here. Rather, I’m interested in how this racist caricature can be eliminated from the sport I love and what has prevented it from happening to date. That’s a very different question, and it’s one that has little if anything to do with accusations of racism or good guys and bad guys. It has everything to do with institutions and inertia. And I think it’s time to drill down into that some.

Let us stipulate that the Cleveland Indians, as an organization, are not a bunch of racists. I don’t believe that for a second. They, like every other sports team, have a history and, for lots of reasons, the Indians history comes with Chief Wahoo packed in the baggage. While the Indians have made efforts over the years to diminish Wahoo, those efforts have not taken. The most likely reason for that is fear of fan backlash. Fans who, even if they themselves are not racists either, do what all sports fans do and root from a primarily emotional place, where real-world questions like “is what I’m wearing racially offensive?” are not permitted to intrude. It’s not just writers they want to stick to sports. They stick to sports themselves and, with a strong assist from cognitive dissonance, their conception of sports involves a Chief Wahoo cap and arm patch.

So, you’re running the Indians. Even when you win your division you don’t draw well, and thus the LAST thing you want to do is anger or alienate your most passionate fans. Of course you don’t get rid of that logo. Doing so would take some pretty considerable moral and ethical courage. Or, at the very least, moral and ethical courage in quantities that outweigh the short term P.R. and financial motives of a for-profit business, and that’s quite a bit. So let us stipulate two things, actually: (1) The Indians are not a bunch of racists; and (2) Even if they’re not, they’re not, on their own, going to get rid of Chief Wahoo. If they were going to, they would’ve done it by now.

Which is why I turn to Major League Baseball. If the Indians themselves are not going to do the right thing and eliminate Chief Wahoo, Major League Baseball should.

At this point I’ll say something which will probably surprise a lot of you: I’m not crazy. I may stand up on soapboxes and rant and rave about any little thing that crosses my mind, but I am, at heart, a realist. I know how large and sophisticated organizations work and I know that Major League Baseball is a large and sophisticated organization. It cannot snap its fingers and make whatever crazy, soapbox-standing bloggers want to have happen happen, even if wanted to (note: it does not want to). There are rules and norms and politics to even the most pedestrian of issues that cross Rob Manfred’s desk, and Chief Wahoo is not a pedestrian issue. It’s a controversial one that lends itself to passion and bad press and those are the hardest things an organization like MLB has to deal with. Indeed, it would prefer not to.

Part of that complication is that this is a club matter and clubs, under Major League Baseball’s business model, are mostly their own things and they can do what they please with most things. Certainly things like club identity, logos, colors, uniforms and the like. At most MLB gives final approval on new ideas in these areas, but it does not order clubs to change fonts or logos or mascots that have been in place for decades. “Hey, Orioles? You’re now the ‘Knights’ and your colors are purple and gold. Make it so” is not a memo Rob Manfred is going to write.

There is likely not even a mechanism in place for this. League-wide matters are dealt with via MLB’s constitution, to which all clubs agree, and that usually involves league wide ownership votes. This is not one of those things, though. Thirty club owners are not going to hold a vote about what mascot the Indians can slap on their cap. Large and complex organizations do not eagerly do things for which there is not a formal mechanism to accomplish said things. So, in addition to the historical inertia and the abhorrence of controversial issues and p.r. and the like, you have systemic reasons which make it easier for MLB to not act than to act.

But that does not mean it should not act. I believe it should, and I believe that the only way Major League Baseball will not, eventually, act to abolish Chief Wahoo is if it willfully ignores those questions I posed above. If it ignores, in fact, the very words it uttered just this week when the matter of the Indians name and logo was the subject of an Ontario court hearing:

“Major League Baseball appreciates the concerns of those that find the name and logo of the Cleveland Indians to be offensive.  We would welcome a thoughtful and inclusive dialogue to address these concerns outside the context of litigation.”

To truly be a part of that dialogue, Major League Baseball itself is obligated to state its convictions on the matter. If it is having trouble finding its convictions I will, once again, offer a little guide to help them along:

    • Does Major League Baseball believe that Chief Wahoo is a racist caricature? That’s a pretty simple question. A human being as educated as Rob Manfred and as educated as the hordes of Ivy Leaguers who work for him can plainly and quickly answer if it wished to.
    • If not, why not? Like I said, if they can make a convincing argument that Wahoo isn’t racist it’ll be the first time anyone has done so, but like I also said, these guys are smart, and I bet if anyone can they can. I’ll give them a fair hearing.
    • If MLB does think Wahoo is racist, does Major League Baseball think it appropriate for a club to have a racist caricature as its logo? Based on everything I know about Major League Baseball and its commitment to diversity, inclusion and open-mindedness, it cannot answer this question in the affirmative if it believes Wahoo to be racist.
    • Finally, if Wahoo is a racist caricature and if it’s inappropriate for a club to have a racist caricature as a logo what, if anything, does MLB plan to do about Chief Wahoo?

And there we are. There’s nothing formal in place to make the Indians change, but if Rob Manfred gets to that last question, he can certainly lean on the club. He can make a public statement about it and what is right. Or, he can take a different tack and show the Indians how much merch they’d sell if they got a new logo. It doesn’t matter much. The Commissioner is not omnipotent, but in a matter of conscience that affects only one club, some meetings and phone calls and his power of persuasion could make a big difference here. All the difference, really.

But first Major League Baseball and Commissioner Manfred have to themselves be inspired to act. They have to cease dodging the matter by making reference to the controversy and the feelings it engenders and actually take a position in that controversy. The Indians have shown that they will not act unilaterally, so MLB should, at long last, weigh in itself to force their hand.

Commissioner Manfred will, no doubt, be in Cleveland for the World Series. He will, no doubt, hold a press conference or two. Given the Indians return to the international stage, the usual protests about Chief Wahoo will be louder than they typically are and Commissioner Manfred will be asked about the matter. I believe that he, on behalf of the league, should answer the questions I have posed here and that other journalists will no doubt pose to him in person.

I hope he does. I hope that, rather than once again merely acknowledging a longstanding conversation about a baseball team sporting an abjectly racist logo on its cap in the 21st century, he, on behalf of Major League Baseball, enters the conversation. I hope he does what no one else seems willing or able to do: eliminates Chief Wahoo, now and forever.

Doing so would not be the easy course. It would certainly be easier to dodge these questions than to answer them openly and honestly and to then do what one’s answers to them obligate one to do. But it would be the right thing to do. I suspect Major League Baseball already knows this.