The Sports Daily > Burning River Baseball
Balls – Graig Nettles with Peter Golenbock

Beginning at the end, in the epilogue for the paper back edition of Balls, written by Graig Nettles with Peter Golenbock states that most reviewers complained that the book was but “300 pages of unrelieved criticism.” While I’m generally not one to listen to reviewers, they were apparently dead on this time.

To start with the good, however, there is nothing more insightful into how baseball actually works than a diary style book written by someone who is actually in the dugout. Writers can try to find out what happens through interviews, but nobody knows the truth beyond those who actually witnessed the events. Where else would you get stories like the time Goose Gossage took his wife out to a nice dinner and had a lobster spine get stuck into his nail. Using only the most advanced science available, the Yankees trainer had him stick his finger in a lime all day and he was able to pitch three innings the next day. Another good one was just the line “That was the age when Sparky Lyle kept sitting nude on cakes.” I don’t understand how we don’t universally refer to the 70’s as the age when Sparky Lyle sat nude on cakes. There’s the bronze age, the stone age and the Sparky Lyle nude cake age.

Of course, with the funny stories come some that are not quite as funny. In particular is the opening to chapter four, the two pages solely devoted to the Cleveland Indians, where he played from 1970 through 1972. The book as a whole alternates chapters with half being dedicated to the current season with the Yankees (1983) and the rest encompassing his entire career. Even so, it’s pretty incredibly that he summed up three years in two pages. A few interesting quotes include:

When you play on a team like Cleveland, what you’re trying to do more than anything else is to impress other general managers. There’s no point playing for the team, especially when everyone’s happy at five hundred.

As well as this peach:

“We’d have a big crowd opening day, but Cleveland was a town that was living in the past. Always they would refer to the 1948 Indians, blah blah blah: “We drew two million six in 1948, blah, blah, blah.”

This is actually a point that I’ve made in the past and it’s interesting to see a player actually state it aloud (or in print). In 1970, Clevelanders were still living in the 1940’s just like how in the current decade many are still talking about the 1990’s Indians. Move on with your lives, the rest of the world is in 2018.

One of the fun things about reading books from 30+ years ago is finding bits that could be confirmed or disproved by advanced statistics that didn’t exist at the time. In this case, early on in his diary of the 1983 season he mentions that Yankees starting pitcher Shane Rawley was due for a big year because “Everything they hit dribbled through the infield or just barely fell over the infielder’s head.” This is the exact type of statement that lead to the development of Batting Average on Balls in Play or BABIP. By comparing a pitchers average allowed on balls in play to those of the rest of the league, we can see if he was lucky or not and FIP goes a step further to see what a player’s ERA would be based without these “lucky” hits.

The data shows that maybe Nettles was a bit off in his evaluation as Rawley had a near league average BABIP in 1982 of .297 and an FIP identical to his ERA of 3.78. In fact, he would have had an argument had he made the statement a year later as his ERA ballooned to 4.44 in 1983 while his FIP remained fairly constant at 3.82. In any case, this was certainly just a player sticking up for his teammate, which is positive for Nettles who threw quite a few of his other teammates/coaches/front office members under the bus, then drove the bus over them himself.

Another point where Nettles was 100% dead wrong was in the creation of the LOOGY. His direct quote was:

You can platoon a third baseman, or a first baseman or a left fielder, but to platoon a catcher or relief pitcher, that just doesn’t work.

This was part of a longer discussion on the topic, but the success in the last 30 years of specialty pitchers has proven this old school thought silly. This leads into the point that this book isn’t really a retelling of history. In comparison to books previously covered in the Burning River Book Club, it’s almost like a combination of Ball Four and Bob Feller‘s Little Black Book of Baseball Wisdom. While the story is told chronologically (alternating chapters), Nettles uses anecdotes to jump off into his personal opinions. Of course, those opinions weren’t always favorable towards George Steinbrenner and the New York Yankees and the five time All-Star and three time Gold Glover was traded to San Diego immediately following the book’s publication for Dennis Rasmussen and a player to be named later. Nettles was worth 2.5 WAR in 1983 and 5.6 the next two years for the Padres, so in making the trade, Steinbrenner was actually proving Nettles right. Based off the final chapter where he discusses his negotiation with Steinbrenner as a free agent in the fall of 1983, one has to wonder if Nettles was actually playing George in an effort to play for his home club of San Diego with his best friend Goose Gossage and still get the Yankee pay rate of $1M per season.

One common critique Nettles had of Steinbrenner was that his constant focus on having big name veterans was hurting their ability to develop young talent. This is something extremely relateable for the Indians right now even if they don’t have a Reggie Jackson level name on the roster. In particular, Nettles was obsessed with this young first baseman named Don Mattingly who he thought should have been starting for the Yankees prior to 1983. Since I’ve pointed out a few of the things Nettles had wrong, it’s only fair to show how right he was about this one as Mattingly won MVP in 1985 and would be one of the top hitters and fielders for the rest of the decade. Of course, he also held the opinion that a team couldn’t win unless it was made up mostly of players who had already won somewhere else, so he was essentially playing both sides of this coin.

Possibly the funniest aspect of this book can be found in his statement during a discussion on Gossage. Nettles says, “I never said that to Billy. It’s not my place.” I have to wonder if Nettles was that clueless. Not only are you now saying it to Billy (Martin), but you’re also saying it to George and the rest of the world. This isn’t a personal journal, it was always meant to be published. It’s not even like Jim Bouton when he was writing Ball Four and his career was essentially over already. Nettles played until 1988 and was a valuable player for the next two years after the book was published. He had to have cost himself more in salary by writing the book than he every could have made from writing it. In that manner, we have to thank him for doing so. There are some pretty incredible stories in here, including how the Yankees dealt with the pine tar incident, Andre Robertson‘s car crash and the death of Thurman Munson among others. For Indians fans, he also gets a little into what it was like playing for Bob Lemon (his manager) and Al Rosen (general manager).

By the way, the segment that lead to the quote about talking to Billy had the following two statements in it. “I’ve tried to get Goose to throw his slider more than he does, but he won’t listen to me.” and one page later “If he started resorting to breaking pitches and changeups, I’d start to worry, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with his fastball.” Let’s just say that after reading Balls, I’m not particularly surprised that Nettles never went on to be an MLB coach or manager.