The day was April 16th. The Devil Rays were off to another lackluster start, and had just endured a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Red Sox - David Wells pitched a complete game shutout, while D-Ray starter Hideo Nomo didn't last more than two innings, allowing eight earned runs in the 10-0 throttling. Up and coming superstar Rocco Baldelli was still rehabbing a knee injury. Speedster Carl Crawford had only stolen four bases all season. Perpetual prospect Toby Hall was once again playing footsie with the Mendoza Line. Clearly, this was a team once again on the brink of total collapse. Then along came Alex Sanchez, and with that, inspiration.
"F-ck [Devil Ray principal owner Vince] Namioli," says Tampa Bay skipper Lou Piniella, speaking from the dugout before April 29th's 5-0 loss to the Baltimore Orioles. "And f-ck Chuckie [Lamar, Tampa Bay GM], too. Seems like they think the only point of playing baseball is to pay ex-Yankees to hit doubleplay grounders and trade for players that could be my grandkids. Someone should tell that horse's -ss that you're supposed to eventually finish a rebuilding project." Cradling and caressing five empty bottles of Boone's Farm Wine, Piniella's frustrations with the team's financial difficulties were evident. "I can't buy a g-ddamn cup of coffee for thirty million dollars, and obviously you can't field a g-ddamn baseball team worth a plug of tobacco. But, hey, it doesn't matter - most folks in Tampa can't see past their Blueblockers, and they're rooting for the Red Sox or Yankees anyway. I don't get it. I mean, I get it, but I don't."
What Lou did get was speedy menace Alex Sanchez, fresh off a 10-day suspension for violating the newly enhanced banned substance abuse policy instituted by Major League Baseball. With Sanchez now available for full-time duty, Piniella did what any manager would do with a hitter whose career numbers included a .385 slugging percentage and a whopping 70 walks in 1390 official at-bats - he batted him third, in position to drive in baserunning pests like Crawford and shortstop Julio Lugo.
"F-ck it. Why not play the worst position player in American League history in the 3 hole?" Piniella asked rhetorically. "You think I want to actually sit in the dugout and watch this sh-t happen for three hours a night? I'd rather be a paying customer - that way, I could leave the damn park whenever Dirty Sanchez runs into an out. Plus, what the hell, he's on the juice - wind him up and watch him go. He might actually get a double or 2 if he's jacked enough. Yeah!"
Sanchez's particular combination of speed and defense makes him a potent addition to the Devil Ray line-up. I asked a leading AL scout about Alex Sanchez. After he stopped laughing, he had this to say - "Have you seen him in the field? I watched him in Comerica Park during a series against the Royals last year. The guy cannot draw a straight line between himself and where a fly ball's gonna be - he's got himself running around some DC rotary during rush hour. Or maybe he likes to stretch his legs, I don't know. It takes him three hours to get where he needs to be when someone hits a pop up. A pop up. If I watched him actually try to go back on a ball, I'd piss myself silly."
As for Sanchez's success as a base stealer: "Go read a stat sheet, would you? He barely has a 2:1 career ratio. Mickey Tettleton had a better ratio than that. [Ed. Note: Tettleton was 23-for-52 in career stolen base attempts] Boog Powell. [Ed. Note: 20-for-41] Bob Hamelin. [Ed. Note: 11-for-19] [Ed. Note: no, really!] Marlon Brando. Batboy. A block of cheese. A three toed sloth running backwards through quicksand with Andy Pettitte on the mound would do better than that."
Regardless of what stat sheets say, Piniella's cavalier line-up approach is just one instance of a new mode of thought that's spread like The Clear all across the major leagues. Other managers, like Dusty Baker, Buck Showalter, Wille Randolph, Joe Torre, Jack McKeon, and Lloyd McClendon have opted to cut against the grain. They don't play Moneyball, where getting on-base is king and stealing bases is a mortal sin and roster spots are filled out by minor league veterans and major league castoffs. They play Funnyball, where the decision processes behind lineup and roster management are far removied from pages upon pages of statistical analysis available to managers. These men rely on hunches, received knowledge, and personal preferences.
Why was the impatient free-swinging Alfonso Soriano leading off for so many years? Because he's fast. Why put faith into aging & questionably effective players like Bernie Williams, John Flaherty, Neifi Perez, and Ramon Martinez? Because they're veterans and proven winners. Why bench a patient promising power hitter like Hee Sop Choi for elder statesman like Eric Karros and Jeff Conine? Because, in less than 100 major league at-bats, Choi has proven that he can't hit lefties.
The top of the Mets batting order, Jose Reyes and Kaz Matsui, has had a tough start to 2005, with Reyes' first 100 plate appearances coming and going without one walk to his credit. Meanwhile, a hitter like David Wright bats in the lower third of the line-up, behind spot-starter Chris Woodward and struggling slugger Mike Piazza. "We don't want to rush Wright along too quickly," says Mets skipper Randolph at a recent press conference. "Even if he is the future of our franchise, and he's hitting well enough that he should be higher in the order, it's too soon to subject him to that sort of pressure. Once he learns how to hit in the lower part of the order, then he can earn a promotion to the top of the order." When asked about Reyes and his struggles with patience, Randolph paused, scratched his chest, and then said, "That's a lot of meat!"
"The problem with Reyes," opined Mets color commentator Fran Healey, "isn't that he's not patient enough. The problem is that you don't want him to be too patient. You swing the bat, you're going to put the ball in play, and force the defense to throw you out. You can't swing the bat if you're taking a pitch. You have to make contact if you want to get a hit. Walking's not going to get you hits. It's going to get you struck out."
Lloyd McClendon agrees - his Pirates lineup have featured hitters like Tike Redman and Bobby Hill hitting in the 3-4-5 slots. "I don't care about power and walks and stuff like that," says McClendon. "I only ask my players one question: can you play? If they answer 'yes', then they play, and they play where I tell them to play, and they play hard. People tell me that folks are writing about Big Red [Tike Redman] hitting 3rd as if it's a problem. He hit a home run hitting 3rd - tell me what's wrong with that!"
Of late, the New York Yankees have been under more scrutiny than usual, due to their lackluster start and their aging roster bearing a striking resemblance to a hospital waiting room. To revitalize their moribund offense, the Yankees have taken drastic steps - moving A-Rod down in the order, flip-flopping Jorge Posada and Hideki Matsui, benching Bernie Williams, moving second baseman Tony Womack to left field, and even putting out failed hits on Jason Giambi. So far, nothing seems to have worked. Yankee radio announcer John Sterling: "I'm waiting for the azure grass and clear blue skies that typify The House That Ruth Built and the excellence of the winningest franchine in sports history to be tainted by the odious presence of past failures like Oscar Azocar and Kevin Maas. I'd rather watch Andy Hawkins lose a no-hitter - again - than see Bern Baby Bern one-hop the pitcher's mound from second base. If this is New York Yankee baseball, then I'm Susan St. James."
Given the conflicting results these teams have experienced, it's too soon to tell whether Funnyball is a failure or a success. For Chicago, giving Neifi Perez playing time (in the wake of another injury to Nomar Garciaparra) has paid off, with the slap-happy infielder producing at a level that rivals April Player of the Month Derrek Lee. Unfortunately for Tampa Bay, Alex Sanchez's tenure as a 3rd hitter was shortlived - as of early May, he's now batting leadoff, where he saw his greatest successes as a Detroit Tiger. Meanwhile, Carl Crawford takes the place that Sanchez has vacated, and slumping rookie Jorge Cantu (one hit in 17 ABs) loses his job to up-and-coming prospect Nick Green.
"I have no f-cking idea what I'm doing," slurred Piniella, tossing an empty bottle out onto the playing field. "If Baldy [Baldelli] comes back soon, I'll probably bench Huff-n-Puff [Aubrey Huff], put Travis Lee in center, make Carl catch, turn Toby into dog food, and give Alex Gonzalez a captain's C. Whatever. I'm just here to cash a check, get Zim out of his wife's hair, and make it look good for the suits. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go down to Durham - I heard Chuck talking about promoting BJ Upton." Piniella stands up, wipes off his chin, and grabs a 2x4. Three nails stick out the side of the wood. He gets into a batting stance with the nail-ridden plank, and a devilish grin slides across his face. "Not this week."