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Say-It-Ain't-So Joe 

Why does Joe Morgan -- the best second baseman in history and a prominent TV broadcaster -- hate Moneyball? And Billy Beane and his Oakland A's? And you, too, if you think the statistical revolution that's overwhelmed Major League Baseball has any

Wednesday, Jul 6 2005

Page 4 of 6

Me: No!

Joe: But that's what you're saying.

Me: You're caricaturing that point of view. ... You're turning it into this ridiculous caricature where it looks like a bunch of geeks at their computers.

Joe: Well, that's what it is.

Me: You think so?

Joe: That's what I think it is. Anytime you're trying to make statistics tell you who's gonna win the game, that's a bunch of geeks trying to play video games.

He was "a good little player," scouts would tell him on the few occasions they would actually talk to him, surely unaware their brushoff -- one imagines this accompanied by a pat on the head -- would become a chapter title in a baseball great's memoirs. Born in Texas, raised in Oakland, the kid was always an afterthought when scouts came to town. "I was a star," he writes. "I played second, short, hit for average and power, stole bases, but I might as well have been playing in Little League." Even later, he never looked the part of a star. Small and slight, he had a funny tic at the plate, a timing mechanism wherein he would waggle his back arm in what people always described as a chicken flap, but which looked a lot more like palsy.

But Joe Morgan was smart. It says so on his Hall of Fame plaque: "A fierce competitor renowned for his baseball smarts, Joe Morgan could single-handedly beat opposing teams with his multifaceted skills." Bill James, in the most recent edition of his Historical Baseball Abstract, rates Morgan not only the best second baseman in baseball history but also the best "percentage player," which is a rough measurement of baseball IQ. He fielded his position well above the norm; he drew walks (1,865 over a 22-year career with Houston, Cincinnati, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Oakland) and rarely struck out (just 1,015, or about one every nine at-bats); he stole bases (689) and rarely got caught (162). He was so smart, his manager in Cincinnati, Sparky Anderson, never bothered giving him steal signs; Morgan was trusted to decide on his own. (If there were more base stealers like him today, with a success rate like Morgan's, the A's might not be so inert on the base paths.) He won two MVP awards, should've won three, and would've been a good choice for six, according to one writer for the Web site Hardball Times, who described Morgan as "the perfect second baseman" and "one of the most underrated and unappreciated players in baseball history."

"He was the perfect Billy Beane player," says writer Rob Neyer, a Bill James acolyte and co-author of The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers. In fact, Morgan's career has gotten nothing if not a boost from the statistics crowd, which makes his crusade even more puzzling. "A lot of people, myself included, think Joe Morgan was the greatest second baseman of all time," Neyer says. "I don't think, 25 to 30 years ago, anybody would've bought into that. I don't know if people talked about him like that during his career. I suspect that if you had done a poll of the nation's sportswriters 25 years ago, you would've seen a lot of names like Rogers Hornsby, Nap Lajoie, Frankie Frisch. But if you did one now, Joe Morgan would pop up a lot, in part because we have a greater respect for the things he did so well."

Jon Miller remembers telling his broadcast partner about Bill James' second baseman rankings, that in fact James had rated him at the top. Says Miller: "Joe said, 'Well, how could that be? [Hornsby] hit .400 and 42 home runs, and I'm hitting .325 and 27 homers.' ... What was interesting to me was, most guys, I think, number one, would already have been aware of that and would've savored that assessment. And number two, that even if they were just being told for the first time, most guys would be happy to embrace that. But Joe has such a sincere respect for the history of the game -- because who is Rogers Hornsby? I mean, Rogers Hornsby is an old redneck alcoholic who was probably as racist as anybody who's ever played the game. And yet Joe had this great respect for what he'd done and was very aware of what he'd done -- not many former players are aware of those kinds of things -- and Joe was sincerely ready to argue on behalf of Hornsby."

Morgan began his television career in 1985, calling Reds games for Cincinnati's WLWT, and in 1990 he teamed with Miller for ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball. (If, as the academics on a busman's holiday have it, baseball is America's great civil religion, then ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball is Mass. It's certainly every bit as pompous.) The two would make a great comic pairing -- Morgan, small, black, and prickly; Miller, round, white, and gregarious -- if they didn't take themselves so seriously. Watch them the next time they call a 7-3 Mets win over the Nationals (because it seems they only call 7-3 Mets-Nats games); they'll talk like raconteurs in front of Ken Burns' camera. Like it or not, they are the voice of a baseball fan's Sunday, which isn't entirely inappropriate. When Morgan talks, there is the familiar keening, the steady note of harangue, the complete absence of humor, the smug conviction devolving frequently into unreason and illogic, and we're not even out of the first inning.

In his Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James, after praising Morgan the player, goes on to describe Morgan the broadcaster as "a self-important little prig," a "twit," and a "weenie," just about hitting for the cycle. (When asked about Morgan for this article, James demurs, writing in an e-mail: "We in sabermetrics do best when we can keep the discussion focused on questions like 'What is true?' and 'What is the logical position here?' and 'What is the evidence on that issue?' We don't do so well when we drift into debates about personality and character, since those discussions focus, in the end, [on] who is cool. I respect Joe's greatness as a player, and, as for Joe as a broadcaster, I've said as much as I'm going to say.") To be fair, Morgan can be very good when he's breaking down the minutiae of the game, but these days that seems to interest him less and less, and, anyway, must the world be subjected to another disquisition on the difference between a guy who steals bases and a base stealer?

About The Author

Tommy Craggs


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