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Wednesday, December 10, 2003
 



BASEBALL AND CHEMISTRY: ABSOLUTELY VITAL ... OR A TALE TOLD BY A FOOL?


What the heck are the Yankees doing? George Steinbrenner seems to be trying to corner the market on malcontents, whiners and clubhouse cancers, ardently pursuing the likes of Gary Sheffield -- who is already trying to hold The Boss up for more money -- Kenny Lofton, David Wells, Juan Gonzalez and Kevin Brown.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox are trying their hand at the New Baseball Math, looking to unload their two unhappy campers -- Manny and Nomar -- for A-Rod, who, only three years into his 10-year commitment to the Rangers already wants out, desperately.

All of this has the Writers' Bloc cogitating on the importance of chemistry in baseball -- can you really hope to win without it? -- and wondering why we all can't just get along. And, in a special WB investigative reporting bonus feature, Jim Caple explains how all this offseason chaos jibes with the Yankees' world-famous Personality Profile Test, and with BoSox stats guru Bill James' soon-to-be world-famous Chemistry Shares Formula.

Steve Wulf: Good vibrations
It is the chicken-or-the-egg argument of sports. Which comes first, winning or chemistry? I used to think it was all just a matter of winning, that victories alone brought peace, happiness and goodwill toward media, that an egotistical malcontent who drives in 125 runs trumps a team-firster with a hole in his swing.

But now I think it's mostly about chemistry. No matter how many All-Stars you acquire, you better make sure they're on the same page, and that it shouldn't be page 12 of the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog. The last three World Series were won not by the better teams but by the better teammates. What people think of as parity in the NFL is really just chemistry: Add a Super Bowl ego trip to the same basic elements and -- kaboom! -- you blow up like the Buccaneers and Raiders. The success of the Lakers this season and the Red Wings two seasons ago is not attributable to the collection of superstar talents so much as it is to the sublimation of egos to a higher goal, namely winning. I actually believe there is no I in team.

If there were a Periodic Table of the Elements for team sports, it would have nearly as many atomic numbers as the real one: Talent (Ta), Payroll (Bb), Coaching (Sk), Age (Yr), Management (Up), History (Hi), Camaraderie (Ca), Fans (Fa) Media (Me), Music (Mu), Cards (Po), Clubbies (Tp), etc. With the right mix, you can win despite the odds, a la the Twins or Cowboys or Predators. As a Red Sox fan, I fear that no matter who the manager or shortstop is, they will never win, because once the bunsen burner starts heating up Hi, Fa and Me, you get a chain reaction that takes out all of New England.

The single most important element may be Ta, but right behind it in significance is Sk. It's the skipper or coach who sets the tone, monitors the locker room and keeps the glare away from the players. (There have been instances when a terrible leader wins in spite of himself -- there was a baseball team once that voted NOT to give the manager a full postseason share -- but in those cases, he was probably so bad that he actually united the players.) That's why changing coaches often works, and why fired coaches often succeed in different situations.

I forget which it is: Does good pitching beat good hitting, or vice versa? This much I do know: Good vibes beats 'em both.


Eric Adelson
To: Steve Wulf
Subject: Good vibes

Well said, Wulf, but it's simpler. Every championship team must have one player who can take out the belt and whip all the malcontents into shape. We hear plenty from Warren Sapp every Sunday, but never once have we heard him say Keyshawn needs to shut it. And wouldn't it be nice to hear Rich Gannon tell CWood to look in the mirror? How sweet to hear a Red Sox fan pretend the best team didn't win the World Series, but the top two teams with the top two captains -- Jeter and Pudge -- went the distance. Need I remind you of Pudge vindictively holding up the ball after the last play of the NLDS? How about Jeter telling a teammate late in ALCS Game 7 that there are ghosts in Yankee Stadium just waiting to come out?

Perhaps Pedro doing something more constructive than pointing at his skull went unreported. But I doubt it. Hockey? All those egos meshed in Detroit because not even Brett Hull is foolish enough to complain in front of one-legged captain Steve Yzerman. And funny how the Bulls stumbled when MJ played baseball, and the Lakers crumbled when Shaq showed up out of shape, and the Spurs lost their ballast without the Admiral.

To repeat: Every championship team has a clubhouse silencer. Every other team just has a lot of noise.


David Schoenfield
To: Writers' Bloc
Subject: Chemistry in baseball

When Jim Leyland managed the Pirates, he and Barry Bonds got into an infamous spring-training shouting match near the batting cage. When a reporter later asked Leyland how the incident would affect team chemistry, Leyland nailed the answer:

"I'll tell you what f------ chemistry is: Chemistry is a .300 batting average, 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases."


Ralph Wiley
To: Writers' Bloc
Subject: Chemistry in baseball

Amen, brother. Chemistry is for basketball, good marriages and "PTI."


Eric Neel
To: Writers' Bloc
Subject: To quote the masters ...

Here's what I know about baseball and chemistry:

You should believe ...

    It will take our people out-of-doors, fill them with oxygen, give them a larger physical stoicism. Tend to relieve us from being a nervous, dyspeptic set. Repair these losses, and be a blessing to us.
    -- Walt Whitman

You should always ...

    Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move. And if your stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts.
    -- Satchel Paige

And if that doesn't work, remember ...

    Baseball is a red-blooded sport for red-blooded men. It's no pink tea, and mollycoddles had better stay out.
    -- Ty Cobb


Patrick Hruby
To: Writers' Bloc
Subject: Chemistry

The importance of chemistry in baseball cannot be overstated. Just ask Victor Conte.


Alan Grant
To: Writers' Bloc
Subject: Chemistry

On certain matters of chemistry, I am nothing short of a sappy romantic. When two people find one another in a chaotic, loveless world, and their passion for one another eclipses the otherwise bleak state of affairs, their accomplishment -- and resulting bliss -- is an example of blessed chemistry.

But I cannot, in good conscience, apply such principles to baseball & or other sports, for that matter. A team is a team only in the sense it is comprised of more than one person.

Now chemistry can play a role, and a very specific one. For example, Gary Sheffield might find himself in the Yankees outfield and suddenly forget how many outs there are. If he politely asks Bernie Williams to remind him, and Bernie, who is by all accounts a truly good-natured sort, says something like, "F--- you, ass----," then I would consider that an example of how chemistry might negatively affect the team's chances for success.

Jim Caple: A special Writers' Bloc investigation
Does team chemistry make a difference? Of course it does. Bill James proved it with his Chemistry Shares formula (see below). And preserving the Yankees' famous chemistry is the reason behind the holdup in the Gary Sheffield talks. Sheffield still must pass New York's famous personality profile before being allowed to mix with the precious clubhouse chemistry at Yankee Stadium.

Developed over decades by leading psychologists, sabermetricians and Cosmopolitan magazine editors, this proven test has allowed the Yankees to sign only "winners'' and "team players" such as Darryl Strawberry, Chuck Knoblauch, Ruben Rivera, David Wells, Fritz Peterson and, of course, manager Billy Martin. It was the chemistry provided by such players that has lifted the Yankees to greatness.

Scouts for other organizations refer to top prospects as "five-tool" guys but only the Yankees search for six- and occasionally seven-tool players by including this critical personality evaluation. Yankees psychological scouts break players down into six categories: winners, standup guys, team players, troublemakers, team cancers and born losers. Players classified as team cancers or born losers can never be Yankees, but an occasional troublemaker may be acquired during the pennant stretch if there is a glaring need at his position or if the Red Sox want him, too.

Among the questions on the test:

Do you think opposing pitchers are trying to get you out?

When you walk into a new on-deck circle, do you feel a compulsion to constantly tug at your wrist bands?

Did you cry when Kevin Costner asks his dad to play catch at the end of "Field of Dreams?"

Do you enjoy torturing small animals or firing fastballs/spears at the skulls of batters?

Do you have a fear of standing in large grassy fields?

What does the attached ink blot resemble?

A) puppies frolicking on the beach
B) two ships floating in the harbor
C) a beautiful butterfly
D) the Orioles and Blue Jays mascots, bludgeoned and choking on their own blood and feathers

Do voices coming from the metal plate in your head tell you to attack the other team's starting pitchers?

Does the test work? Bill James calculates that New York's team chemistry averaged 23.7 percent higher than the league average and a full third higher than the Red Sox last year. The Red Sox, who do not use the test, haven't won a World Series in 85 years and are infamous for taking 25 cabs home after the game. The Yankees, meanwhile, have won 26 World Series and squash so many players into one cab that they resemble a circus car filled with clowns.

"I know the test sounds goofy but I know we're much closer than other teams," Derek Jeter said. "I don't know if it's the personality profiling or the mandatory three-month Peace Corps hitches we do together in the winter, but something is making the difference."

THE BILL JAMES CHEMISTRY SHARES FORMULA

(Winning percentage + Karoake videos) + (OPS + Card games) X (Guys named Dizzy, Pops or Yogi) - (Drugs busts)

DIVIDED BY

(Payroll X Book contracts) + (Potential free agents X Cabs taken after game)

Top five teams all-time Chemistry Shares:

1979 Pittsburgh Pirates (101.876)
1934 St. Louis Cardinals (99.238)
1984 Detroit Tigers (98.3)
1952 Brooklyn Dodgers (98.1)
1956 New York Yankees (97.293)

Bottom five teams all-time Chemistry Shares:

1978 Boston Red Sox (57.381)
1977 Boston Red Sox (57.476)
1979 Boston Red Sox (58.62)
1919 Chicago White Sox (59.02)
1980 Boston Red Sox (60.333)