On the night last May when he took a baseball bat and smashed a TV camera connected to QuesTec, Curt Schilling marked himself as the most strident enemy of the high-tech system Major League Baseball has implemented to evaluate and train umpires in the art of calling balls and strikes. QuesTec isn't in every ballpark; it was in Arizona, where Schilling used to pitch, and it also has been installed in Fenway Park, which is one reason Schilling initially expressed some reluctance to agree to a trade to the Red Sox.
To assuage his concerns about a system he feels is "horribly flawed," one that he contends creates inconsistencies in the way pitches are called in QuesTec and non-QuesTec parks, Schilling went so far as to ask the Sox during negotiations to see whether QuesTec could be removed from Fenway Park.
Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino acknowledged last week that he and principal owner John W. Henry actually made that effort, approaching Sandy Alderson, Major League Baseball's executive vice president of baseball operations and principal champion of QuesTec.
"JWH and I did discuss Questec with Alderson and raised several of Schilling's issues," Lucchino said. "Sandy reiterated his view of its value and utility in reviewing umpire performance."
So, QuesTec stays in Fenway Park, more parks will be added to the list of 10 in which QuesTec exists, and the controversy continues over a system that John Hirschbeck, president of the World Umpires Association, has called unreliable. The umpires filed a grievance against MLB in a so-far unsuccessful attempt to keep QuesTec out of the evaluation process.
"I think it's one of those situations where, regardless of the feedback, they think it's the right thing to do," Schilling said. "I think it's going to come down to hitters, once hitters start [complaining] about it, if they do. I know the hitters I talked to hated it. Right now, they say it's a bunch of pitchers whining, but I know for a fact hitters don't like it that much."
Tom Glavine of the Mets, another vocal critic, complains that the system punishes finesse pitchers the most. Schilling is a power pitcher, but one with exceptional control. He has walked fewer than 40 batters in each of the last three seasons, and his strikeouts-to-walks ratio of 6.06-1 last year was the best in the National League and second in the majors, behind only Toronto's Roy Halladay (6.38-1).
Schilling said umpires have allowed him to inspect the QuesTec video and computer setup.
"That's when I realized how unbelievably, horribly flawed this whole system is," he said. "It's almost comical, if it didn't tick me off so much."
According to Schilling, there were "three or four times" last season when "an umpire told me on the field during a game that he wanted to call a pitch a strike and the machine wouldn't let him."
Sox pitcher Derek Lowe echoed Schilling's complaints, saying opposing catchers had told him of instances in which "umpires have flat-out told [them], `That's a strike, but I can't call it because you guys have that QuesTec.' "
Six AL ballparks had QuesTec last season, including three of the four playoff teams, the Yankees, Red Sox and A's. The Twins were the only playoff team that did not have it. The Mets, Diamondbacks, Brewers, and Astros had it in the NL.
In defending the system, Alderson has noted that pitchers had lower ERAs in parks with QuesTec than in parks without it, and that fewer pitches are thrown in QuesTec parks, and a higher percentage of those pitches are called strikes. The purpose of evaluating umpires in this manner is to help them develop a truer strike zone, rather than have the strike zone be a matter of personal interpretation.
Schilling is not opposed to the idea of umpires being evaluated.
"I applaud that effort," he said. "I do believe umpires should be held accountable. They're the only guys on the field in the big leagues that don't get sent down for doing a bad job."
Lowe can see the umpires' side.
"There's so much pressure on umpires nowadays, because of QuesTec," he said, "and every single ESPN game has that K-Zone, every Fox game you have overhead views, side views, every pitch is being critiqued.
"What makes this game great is the uniqueness of each individual. I pitch different than this guy. Umpires should be able to do the same thing, within reason. Different styles make the game good. Before, you could work with an umpire. By the second or third inning, you know where the strike zone is going to be. But now you have no idea."
Changing his tune
In the week after the Sox' proposed trade for Alex Rodriguez collapsed, Henry wrote that when the team first explored the possibility, "I naively assumed that either Nomar or Alex might agree to play second base or third base. I later learned from Theo [Epstein, general manager] that it was not realistic to ask either of these future Hall of Fame shortstops to change positions." Rodriguez, of course, wound up agreeing to switch to third base as a condition of his trade to the Yankees. An industry source with direct knowledge of the Sox' negotiations said last week that the Sox did indeed broach the subject of a position change with Rodriguez, though indirectly, when talks were at an early stage. This was before the Sox decided to trade Nomar Garciaparra to the White Sox for Magglio Ordonez if they succeeded in acquiring A-Rod. The message they got back consistenly from Rodriguez is that he intended to remain a shortstop. He also spent a considerable amount of time, in his conversations with the Sox, telling them how much he hated the Yankees, the industry source said. When Rodriguez first told Texas owner Tom Hicks he would waive his no-trade clause for two teams, the Yankees and Red Sox, he included the Yankees only to give Hicks, and himself, some leverage in dealing with the Sox.
Henry and the Red Sox were pilloried in the media last week after Henry complained of the Yankees' unlimited resources in the wake of the A-Rod deal.
Bill Madden, New York Daily News: "Henry comes off sounding like a complete hypocrite in calling for a salary cap in baseball . . . Crazy as this might seem, Henry and fellow Red Sox honcho, team president Larry Lucchino, have managed to make Steinbrenner look almost like a sympathetic character in all this with their cries of foul and outrage over his snaring of A-Rod."
Joel Sherman, New York Post: "The only insanity, however, was Henry thinking he could go bluster for bluster with the king of the art form. By late afternoon, George Steinbrenner had issued a statement so biting and cunning in return that Joe Torre, face in hands, literally was caught between chuckle and grimace as the words were read to him by a reporter . . . Henry might think about starting up Hypocrites Anonymous. After all, his team is the only other one currently over the luxury tax threshold. Was it going to be good for the game if the No. 2 payroll team landed A-Rod? Plus, Henry was a Yankees limited partner for more than a decade, and I don't remember any public complaints when he was getting his dividend check thanks to Steinbrenner's Evil Empire ownership style."
Jon Heyman, Newsday: "Henry should stick to something he knows, something else. Because he got crushed yesterday. Just as when he passed on the greatest player in the world over spare change and let that player for the ages be fitted for pinstripes. Henry somehow thinks that after months of browbeating, hammering and nickel-and-diming The Great A-Rod, that after the dirty pool his right-hand man Larry Lucchino pulled, that after making the call to let a mere $15 mil stand in the way of a deal that could have rewritten your sorry history, it is still somehow the fault of the system."
Randy Galloway, Dallas Morning News: "The biggest doofus organization in all this turns out to be the Boston Red Sox. Those people had A-Rod locked up and locked away before Christmas. That deal was done, period. And the Red Sox had Hicks, and his baseball Einsteins -- [John] Hart and Buck Showalter -- talked into taking Manny Ramirez off their hands. Manny and his $100 million guaranteed contract. This was the best trade in the history of baseball, and the Red Sox were on the best end of it. This would have made up for 85 years of misery involved with the selling off of Babe Ruth to the Yankees. But . . . somehow, someway, Boston blew it. A very doable deal died."
Peter Gammons, ESPN: "Fairness is not the issue because the rules are the rules. When the Red Sox worked their deals with Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke, they did what the Blue Jays or the Indians or the Padres couldn't afford to do. Just as what the Yankees did to get Alex Rodriguez was something only they could afford. That's just the way it is, good old-fashioned Republican baseball, and six strikes haven't changed the fact that the Yankees are in a different world from the Red Sox, who have a huge advantage over the Rangers or the A's, just as George W. Bush and John F. Kerry were born with an advantage because they were born rich."
In the barrage of criticism aimed at Henry, no one bothered to mention that the Sox owner has been consistent in his calls for some restoration of economic balance in the game, and the need to find a mechanism that somehow will bring the Yankees back to the rest of the industry.
Henry, immediately after the collective bargaining agreement was struck in August 2002: "Another benefit is the luxury tax, which at last is the beginning of an effort to restrain the continuing growth of salaries at the high end of the scale. There could be a new cost consciousness."
Henry, last fall: "And what if owners, like players, began to demand a return from baseball as opposed to losses? That probably doesn't matter, though, because at some level of debt, their bankers are going to demand enough return to service the debt and pay down principal. How many team owners have received World Series rings in return for their mountains of debt? I may be overstating the case presently, but not by much. It's still early in the process of returning sanity to the economics of the game. People won't forever hang on to the bubble myths of 1999-2000 such as, `the economics of baseball will never make sense.' "
There was a time, in the '90s, when even the Yankees expressed support for a salary cap. You could look it up. It is a battle that the owners lost a long time ago to the union, and one probably not worth resurrecting soon, but Henry is hardly alone among owners who believe something must be done, and that the last CBA is only a start, not the solution, to bridging the gap.
Sox critics refuse to take at face value the Sox' case that yes, while their spending has exceeded the luxury tax threshold -- largely with a payroll they inherited from previous ownership -- they are attempting to adhere to a business model in which fiscal discipline is exercised and there is a point where they must say no. It happened last winter with Jose Contreras, it happened this winter with Rodriguez, and it will, as Epstein predicted last week, happen again in the future.
It is too facile to suggest that in the game today, there are the Yankees and Sox, and then everyone else. The Yankees are in a league of their own, with their payroll pushing $200 million. The Sox, even with the abundance of resources Henry doesn't deny having, have limits. The Yankees don't. And it was hardly the height of hypocrisy for Henry to make that point last week. The hypocrisy is for Sox critics to suggest that A-Rod would be in a Boston uniform today if the Sox had been willing to give just a little more. The truth is, any deal they would have made for Rodriguez would have cost more, much more.
AND ANOTHER THING...
Are you experienced?
In addition to Jim Tracy, the Dodgers have nine former big league managers on staff: Joe Amalfitano, John Boles, Terry Collins, Del Crandall, Glenn Hoffman, Tom Lasorda, Jim Riggleman, Jerry Royster, and Maury Wills.
He's so fine
Derek Lowe on Patriots quarterback Tom Brady: "I'd say he's uno number one athlete in the Boston area. You know what helps him out? That he's single, too. He'd still be the guy but he's also the top bachelor, which adds a little pizzazz to him, too. He's a great athlete, he's good looking, he's rich -- and he's single."
Reader Matt Scully of San Diego sends along this comparison:
Pedro Martinez in 1998 (26 years old): 233 IP, 251 Ks, 67 BBs, 26 HRs, 188 hits, 2.89 ERA.
Yankees pitcher Javier Vazquez, in 2003 (26 years old): 230 IP, 241 Ks, 57 BBs, 28 HRs, 198 hits, 3.24 ERA.
The next two years, Martinez put together two of the greatest seasons ever by a pitcher. Will Vazquez approach that level?
Compiled by Gordon Edes