You know how sometimes books will sit around for a while, until you pick them up, then wonder what the hell took you so long?
That's how I feel now as I proceed through The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers. I was given the book as a gift several years back, and it has resided in my baseball library next to all the Houston media guides and those bios of Cobb, Grove, and McGraw for some time now. But I never picked it up 'til Sunday, after one of the freaking cats had knocked the book--and many others-- over.
So thanks, cat. If you've never read James, you might have this idea that his books are full of strings of numbers and sabermetric tables, but the fact is, the guy is more of a historian, who'd rather tell a story than do a calculation.
The most brilliant managerial stratagem in the history of baseball occurred in 1929, when Connie Mack named Howard Ehmke to start the first game of the 1929 World Series.
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. . . Howard Ehmke was a thirty-five year old pitcher. He had a fine career, with 166 career wins, and he was still effective when he could pitch, which was hardly ever. After he pitched a couple games, his arm would hurt, and he'd be out for three weeks. In August 1929, Connie Mack called Ehmke aside, and told him that he was going to have to give him his release.
"Mr. Mack," said Ehmke. "if that's the way it is, that's the way it has to be. But I've always wanted to pitch in a World Series, and if this is my last season, I'd like to work in this one, maybe only for a couple innings."
He flexed his arm. "I think I've got one more good game in there."
Mack thought about it, and finally said okay. Both races were all but over by mid-August; the [Philadelphia] A's had locked up the American League, and the Cubs the National. Mack assigned Ehmke to stay on the East Coast when the A's went west, and get tickets to see the Cubs play in Philadelphia, New York, and Brooklyn. Ehmke was to send Mack reports on the Cubs batters--and also, without telling anyone, to prepare himself to pitch the opening game of the World Series.
When Mack named Ehmke to start the opener, the public was shocked. Mack had two 20-game winners, a lefty and a righty [Lefty Grove and George Earnshaw], plus an 18-game winner [Rube Walberg]. The fans had been debating which 20-game winner would get the call. When Ehmke was announced, people thought that Mack was risking the World Series on a sentimental call.
Ehmke pitched one of the best games in World Series history, striking out 13 Cub batters and shutting the team out until the ninth inning. Ehmke, who struck out only 20 batters all season, got 65% of that total in nine innings.
Connie Mack's decision to let Ehmke pitch was unique, gutsy--and had every probability of succeeding. Ehmke could still pitch; he was 7 - 2 in 1929, with an ERA a run better than the league. Mack knew that with a month to get ready for his next start, Ehmke's arm would be fine.
A month to get ready, and all the time he needed to study the upcoming opponent, to figure out exactly what to do with each hitter. A smart veteran pitcher, with a month to think: This is the biggest game of my life. I must get ready to win this one game. How could it go wrong?
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[Mack] was in a unique situation, and he figured out a way to take advantage of it. By so doing, he pulled a game out of thin air and saved his best pitcher for Game Two. It wasn't a strategy devised to get him an out or a base, or a baserunner; it was a strategy designed to get him a game, a World Series game. We'll never see it again, but if we did, I would bet dollars to doughnut holes that it would work again.
Nice story that, and one that might have a little pertinence to the Astros, who will be employing a wily and aged veteran righthander themselves shortly.
But more than any one particular strategy, the lesson taken from the example here is that from time to time there are situations where a manager, in thinking outside the box, can make a vast difference to his team's chances.
Garner has shown here and there that he is not beyond doing things a little differently, and you hope that he is up to the challenge laid down by Mack.
I know it's likely that some of the readers here have already read The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers, and I know it's unlikely that those who haven't will go out and buy a book on my say-so. But those who do take the plunge will find that James is an outstanding storyteller who employs a prose so crystal clear that it is as if there is no filter at all between his weighty ideas and your brain . . . .