Sit numbers game, give me The Babe

JOHN EISENBERG

October 20, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

PHILADELPHIA -- Miller Huggins, the manager of the peerless Yankee teams of Ruth and Gehrig, approached the Babe in the clubhouse before a World Series game years ago, carrying a stack of index cards with stats scrawled on them.

"Babe, big guy," the manager said tentatively. "Got a minute?"

"Watcha need, skip?" Babe growled.

"You know I'd love to play you, you know that, Babe," Huggins said. "You done it for me all year, guy. But there's someone else who had a better average against left-handers this year, Babe. Particularly with two outs and runners in scoring position, Babe, and you know how important that is."

A frown crossed the Babe's famous visage. "But skip, it's the LTC Series," he says, "and I'm gonna knock a couple out today. I can feel it."

Huggins shook his head slowly. "Babe, look at these on-base percentages," he said, pointing to the index cards. "You're 23 points lower against lefties. I hate this, Babe, I do, but I gotta do what's best for the ballclub."

A likely story?

Not!

But look: 70 years later, Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston can sit John Olerud with the World Series at a dead draw, and nary a discouraging word is heard.

Baseball is the only sport that gets this weird. This impossible.

For the first time since 1931, a manager benches a batting champion in the middle of the World Series.

Just about everyone thinks it's a good idea, or, at least, not ridiculous.

And they're right!

"I think this probably makes the most sense," Olerud said before Game 3 against the Phillies last night.

Would the Babe have said that? What do you think?

Of course, no one is suggesting that Olerud is even remotely Ruth's equal. Olerud, 26, had his first .300 season this year. But what a season. He hovered around .400 until late August, finishing at .363.

He was sitting in the dugout in the rain and chill of the Vet last night, however, because there is no designated hitter in Series games at National League ballparks, and Gaston chose to play his customary DH, Paul Molitor, in Olerud's position at first base. Otherwise, Molitor, who finished second in the league in batting at .332, would have had to sit.

In other words, Gaston picked Molitor over Olerud. Why? Because the Phillies were starting a left-handed pitcher, Danny Jackson, and Molitor batted 72 points higher (.363-.291) against lefties during the season. Only one everyday player had a higher average against lefties.

It was, admittedly, probably the toughest DH decision a manager had been forced to make in the two decades since the DH was incorporated into the Series. "A pretty bizarre situation," Olerud conceded. It certainly succeeded in giving new life to the old debate about whether, or how much, the rule penalizes the AL champs.

But even more debatable was Gaston's decision to bench a batting champion on account of stats.

(The obvious move was to use Molitor at third base instead of Ed Sprague, but Gaston was concerned that Molitor hadn't played third base since 1990 and might botch some balls or even somehow hurt himself. Sniffed a slightly insulted Molitor: "I'd like to have tried.")

The game is different now, of course, markedly different. Plastic grass, closers and DHs are just a few of the fundamental changes since the Babe. Nothing is more different now, however, than the absolute power of statistics, on which managers rely as though they were unimpeachable stock tips.

Blame Earl Weaver if you want -- he was the one who made stat-managing the status quo -- but in making his decision, Gaston had at his fingertips a mountain of data that Miller Huggins never envisioned. Who knows what kind of dilemma poor Miller would have faced had it turned out that, indeed, the Babe wasn't so tough on lefties? Pull the Babe? Why, the talk shows would have crucified him.

Anyway, Gaston, long accustomed to being crucified, went ahead and stuck his best hitter on the bench and, lo and behold, the replacement, Molitor, stepped to the plate in the first inning last night and banked a Danny Jackson pitch off the right-field wall for a two-run triple.

Then, in his next at-bat in the third inning, Molitor put a line drive over the left-field fence for a homer.

For those scoring at home: two at-bats, a homer, a triple, three RBI.

The Jays were off to a quick, stadium-silencing lead.

Way to go, Cito. Good move.

You're lucky the Babe isn't a Blue Jay.

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