A long time ago, in a job far, far away, I decided we needed a new way to think of our outstanding baseball players who didn't finish their careers with Hall of Fame-worthy numbers.
Oddly, I began to think of this "Wing of Amazing" because of Omar Vizquel. Why oddly? I'll get to that in a few minutes.
I've actually nominated (and selected!) a few players for the Wing of Amazing. My standards are exceptionally high. I began with Jamie Moyer (and that was before he came back and recorded a victory after his 49th birthday). Then came Jim Abbott, followed by Bo Jackson. After R.A. Dickey's Cy Young season, I added him to the Wing of Amazing. A few months later, our most recent nominee: Terry Mulholland, who just couldn't be run on.
Now, about Omar Vizquel ... He was actually my first nominee, largely because I wanted to provide an "out" for Hall of Fame voters, and there are a lot of them, who just know, deep down in their guts, that Vizquel should be rewarded for his amazing career. If only there was a Wing of Amazing -- just as there are made-up wings for writers and broadcasters -- maybe the voters could do that for Vizquel, instead of electing (or trying to elect) him to the actual Hall of Fame.
The problem is that my ideal Wing of Amazing changed almost immediately. While there were probably tinges of sarcasm and self-righteousness in my nomination of Vizquel, the following nominations utterly lacked cynicism, and were offered purely as celebrations of one-of-a-kind players who did outstanding things on baseball fields. No snark. No ill-disguised passive aggression. Just good plain baseball love.
Well, I'm afraid Omar Vizquel just doesn't qualify. He was a fine player for a long time, but that just doesn't quite do it. Harold Baines and Elmer Valo were both fine players for a long time. What distinguishes Vizquel is that he played until he was 45 years old. But frankly, he probably shouldn't have been playing when he was 45. Or 44. I might be more charitably inclined if he'd still been playing shortstop in those last few seasons. He was not. I might be more charitably inclined if he'd been able to hit decently in those last few seasons. He was not. While I admire Vizquel's talents and all the other qualities that kept him in the majors for 24 seasons, I'm just not inclined to place him in the same class as Jim Abbott and Bo Jackson. With apologies.
So who else does belong in the Wing of Amazing? I've been struggling with this one. Remember (or believe me), players with Hall of Fame-quality numbers aren't eligible. Which leaves out everybody from Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds to Tim Raines and Curt Schilling. The Wing of Amazing is for players who don't belong in the Hall of Fame, but do deserve to be remembered for being amazing players. I'm inclined to nominate Pat Venditte. Yes, Greg Harris once pitched in a major-league game with both arms. But he did that just once. Venditte has been doing that for six years ... alas, all in the minor leagues. So maybe this is premature. Maybe we should wait.
For what, though? Until he pitches in the majors ... or until he pitches in the majors on merit? What if he's got a 4.38 ERA with Scranton next season, but the Yankees promote him to the big club in September just to reward him for all his hard work over the years? Does that automatically qualify Venditte for the Wing of Amazing?
I'm inclined to suggest that it doesn't. That while he doesn't have to pitch effectively in the majors, or at least not for long, he has to prove that he belongs in the majors with Jim Abbott and R.A. Dickey and the rest of them. So I'm afraid I'll leave you today without a new nominee. And maybe that's okay. Maybe the Wing of Amazing should be so exclusive that nominees shouldn't come easy. The last time I threw the floor open for suggestions, nobody blew me away. So maybe we'll just have to wait for Pat Venditte or someone else to come along.
While we're waiting, I'd like to circle around to Jamie Moyer. Recently, I read his book. I wish I could recommend it, but I'm afraid you're probably better off reading a good magazine article about Moyer and -- if you're an athlete -- one of Harvey Dorfman's books. Without many of Moyer's thoughts about his teammates and opponents, there's just not enough meat here for a 288-page book. But Moyer's story is worth the telling, and the remembering.
In 1990, when Moyer was 27, he went 2-6 with a 4.66 ERA with the Rangers. After the season they released him, with the general manager telling Moyer, "We don't see you helping us."
In 1991, Moyer went 0-5 with a 5.74 ERA with the Cardinals. When he got sent to the minors, Joe Torre said, "We don't win when you pitch."
In the spring of '92, the Cubs released him. They did offer him a coaching job.
"I'm not interested," he immediately responded. When the Cubs' farm director asked him to think about it, Moyer said his thoughts weren't going to change. And they didn't. His father-in-law, a famous man with powerful friends, suggested that Moyer find himself a real profession. Moyer's thoughts still didn't change, even though he was nearly 30 years old and owned 34-54 record in the majors, with a 4.56 ERA.
So Moyer stayed in shape. Nobody called in April. Or most of May. Finally, in late May the Tigers called. They were looking for a long reliever. A mop-up man. For their Triple-A club. Moyer signed. For $12,000.
Moyer spent the rest of that season in the minors, and opened the next season in the minors, too. But yes, of course he did finally get back to the majors in 1993 and would win another 235 games over the next 20 years.
A few months ago, I heard an episode of RadioLab that I'll never forget. It was about blame. The show led off with a story about a guy who committed some disgusting crimes and went to jail for a while. His crimes could be directly linked to his brain chemistry, and there seemed to be little chance of recidivism. But did he deserve to be imprisoned in the first place?
The next segment featured a neuroscientist, David Eagleman, who believes the brain science is irrelevant; all that matters is the statistical chance that someone will commit a crime again. We just don't know enough about brain chemistry, Eagleman argues, for brain chemistry to become a meaningful piece of legal proceedings. We will, though, learn a great deal more in coming years. We'll be able to find the soul, the ghost in the machine. We can see brain tumors now, but that's just the beginning. How to use that information, though? Eagleman:
The point is, it cannot be a just legal system that in one decade says, "Well, you're blameworthy," and then the next decade says, "Hey, you have Schmedley's Disease, and we didn't realize that, so now we're lumping you over here with the people with the brain tumors."
Blame-worthiness is the wrong question for a legal system to ask. That's the point. This whole notion about blame-worthiness and saying that if we have a biological mitigator, then we'll bring that up in court and say it's not exactly his fault, and if we don't have a biological mitigator, we'll say it is his fault -- the reason none of this makes sense nowadays, is that because saying was it the person's fault, or was it something about his biology, doesn't makes sense as a question. They are inseparable.
So Eagleman suggest that we simply forget about blame, and focus entirely on "possibilities of future recidivism."
How? "You crunch the numbers."
Turns out it's already happening in some places with sex offenders, up for parole. You can ask a bunch of questions, check the offender's file, and come up with a score that's designed to measure the chance that he'll do it again.
Of course, traditionally you would ask people who have followed the guy's case. Experts. Those experts are correct about half the time. You might as well flip a coin. But with the point system, the predicted accuracy is about 70 percent.
"In order to get that accurate," co-host Jad Abumrad semi-complained, "You kind of have to turn people into data, into types."
I know it seems like, "Where's the humanity in that?" But the question you have to ask is, "Compared to what?" So the way it currently goes, ugly people get much longer sentences than attractive people in courts. This is a well-known bias from juries. Is that somehow better than having a scientifically informed legal system?
This question seemed to leave Abumrad and co-host Robert Krulwich speechless for a moment, but Krulwich finally said that, "Statistics don't have mercy; they only have statistics." To which Eagleman responded, "Are we good at being merciful?"
Maybe it's a stretch, but when I listened to all of this, I couldn't help thinking about Jamie Moyer. If Jamie Moyer had looked only at his statistics in 1992, would he have pitched for Toledo? Or would he have taken that coaching job with the Cubs, or gone after the (relatively) big money with one of Digger Phelps' rich pals?
This analogy breaks down at the team level, because the Tigers probably didn't care at all about his statistics or any other indicator of Moyer's future prospects when they signed him; they just needed someone to fill out the Triple-A pitching staff, and Moyer just happened to be available. The Tigers never called him up that season, and he opened the next season with the Orioles' Triple-A team. It wasn't until later that spring that he returned to the majors for good.
If everyone had just looked at the data, would Moyer have kept getting work for all those years? I'm not sure. If he hadn't, though, we would have missed out on a tremendous story. A few years ago, I read a book that essentially argued that data's not really so important; a year or so later, Clint Eastwood starred in the movie version. Both were terrible, misguided, one-sided efforts with almost nothing worth saying about either baseball or life.
Which seems a shame, because there was plenty of well-meaning talent involved in both projects. Both, I think, were built on a foundation of fear; fear that baseball nowadays is losing its humanity, leaving no room for mercy and intuition and all those other things we think make us, us.
I just finished another book: The Sabermetric Revolution: Assessing the Growth of Analytics in Baseball. It's also well-meaning and I also can't recommend it, unless you haven't been paying attention over the last few years. Do we really need two chapters explaining that Moneyball (both the book and movie) didn't tell us the whole story about the 2003 Athletics? I think most of us probably don't.
I do enjoy a section that systematically measures which teams have been the most sabermetric. Here's a big surprise: the most sabermetric teams over the last decade or so have been the Red Sox, A's, Yankees, and Rays.
Yeah. You knew that already. Me too. But here's the good news! If you've followed any of those teams closely, you also know there's not been any shortage of humanity! Real people with real desires and emotions and neuroses and biases have been running all those teams! Even with all the data!
One can imagine a baseball team where all the roster moves are dictated by a computer program. One can imagine almost anything. But we're so, so far away from anything remotely approaching such a thing that it won't happen while I'm alive, and probably not while you are, either. One might argue that baseball teams could use a little less humanity, or a little more. But it's not going away. If you're really worried about that, you don't understand baseball. Or humanity.
A personal note: This is my last column for SB Nation, at least for a good little while. When I signed up three years ago, I wanted a different kind of adventure and that's what I got. At various points along the way, I was blessed to work every day with Grant Brisbee, Jeff Sullivan, and Al Yellon; their passion and commitment continue to inspire me. Jim Baker and Jason Brannon have been with me for the whole adventure, both of them doing things you simply couldn't find anywhere else. My bosses were Tyler Bleszinski and Kevin Lockland, and treated me better than I probably deserved.
Grant's still around, of course; with him and Steve Goldman and Marc Normandin and Justin Bopp and all the other talented people covering baseball here, this site remains in wonderfully capable hands. I'm grateful to everyone above, and of course I'm forever grateful to you for reading. At some point in the next couple of weeks, I'll be writing about baseball again, and I hope you'll find me again.