Jul 18, 2011, 05:44AM

Baseball’s Best Blogger Gives a Mid-Season Report

Splice interviews Hardball Talk's Craig Calcaterra about everything from Moneyball to Mantle and Mays.

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Whenever I tire of the usual clichés from sportswriters during the baseball season—meaning, every day—a click to Hardball Talk is a tonic. That’s the home of Craig Calcaterra, the 38-year-old former lawyer-turned-baseball blogger who dispenses opinions without regard for hurting anyone’s feelings. In other words, he’s an honest (and passionate) observer of baseball. Calcaterra’s no stranger to this site and last week was kind enough to answer a dozen questions by email, ranging from MLB realignment to the game’s best manager to the upcoming movie based on Moneyball. Blessedly, he didn’t mention Derek Jeter even once.

Splice Today: Back in June you had a provocative—at least to some fans—post about Michael Lewis’ now-dated Moneyball. The Richard Hell bit cracked me up. Here’s what I can’t figure out: how in the world is the film based on Moneyball—Billy Beane does well getting played by Brad Pitt, while Art Howe got the short straw by drawing Philip Seymour Hoffman—going to be a box office hit? I suppose, seeing the trailer, that some far-fetched drama has been cooked up, but I just don’t get it. Do you?

Craig Calcaterra: I’m dubious. I didn’t see The Blind Side movie, but I’m told there were huge liberties taken with Lewis’ narrative from the book in order to create a dramatic arc. All I can think is that they’re going to do it with the Beane character in the movie too. I remember an early script that was floating around that had Beane sleeping with waitresses from Outback Steakhouse or something. Based on that, it wouldn’t shock me to see some “manchild turns into a man” kind of thing.

That aside, I’m betting that the baseball stuff will be too boring for a mass audience and that it will be too over-simplified for the hardcore baseball geeks, and thus no one will be happy. I hope I’m wrong, though. I like Brad Pitt quite a bit.

ST: I’ve no idea how much influence you have in the baseball world but it dwarves mine a thousand-fold. Can you use your influence to get Joe Buck and Tim McCarver to retire from Fox baseball games? Oh, and goody-two-shoes Orel Hershiser from ESPN as well?

CC: Sadly, my influence is scant in that department. I can try to cajole NBC/Comcast to bid on the baseball rights nighttime they come around. I’m guessing there’s a roster of broadcasters two-to-three score long on the payroll who would be better than Buck and McCarver. I’m actually not too down on Hershiser. Remember: he replaced Joe Morgan, and that’s a huge improvement. Or maybe I’m just suffering from ESPN Stockholm syndrome and I’m willing to accept anything at this point.

ST: On July 14, a mistrial was called in the Roger Clemens case, which made me happy. Don’t get me wrong: I’m guessing Clemens was juiced to the gills, but doesn’t the government have more important matters to take care of than prosecuting athletes?

CC: I’m somewhat torn on this. I agree that juicing athletes should not be anywhere on the government’s radar screen. Sadly, however, the decision to forego governmental inquiry into that was made in 2008. Once Clemens was on the Hill, it was too late. He truly did (in my view) make a mockery of the proceedings and wasn’t credible. I suppose the government could have still ignored it, but I see why they didn’t. And to be honest, until that dumb move by the prosecutors that caused the mistrial, I had way more harsh words for how Clemens’ lawyer Rusty Hardin was handling everything, so the petty ex-lawyer part of my makeup wanted to see him get roasted for it.

ST: Bud Selig says he’ll retire after the 2012 season. Assuming that’s true, which is a leap, whom would you like to see as MLB’s commissioner? I think former President George Bush would be great, failing the nomination of Mark Cuban, but I don’t suppose that idea has legs.

CC: I used to think along those lines—big figure, baseball lover—but in the past few years I’ve come to be better-acquainted with some of the things that go on inside. Selig’s success—and whatever we think of his policies, he has been successful in getting done what he wants done—is certainly not a function of his stature or his charm or gravitas or any of the things that the Bush/Cuban/Costas/whoever candidates possess. Baseball is a complicated social and business system. Hell, it’s sort of like feudalism. And Selig knows all the ins and outs of that little world. Who to call when he needs X; who he needs to strong-arm into doing Y; and who to play off someone else in Machiavellian fashion to accomplish Z. If the owners are smart (I know, not a given) his successor should be someone who knows that world as well as Selig does. Some deputy or legal counsel or what have you who has trained at Selig’s knee for a while.

ST: My 16-year-old son and I, both Red Sox fans, have different views on realignment. Typically, as a DH-hating guy who also despises inter-league play, I hope they leave it all alone. Booker, who seeks new statistical analysis like a pig sniffing for truffles, is all for it, claiming it’s better for the small market teams. Your take?

CC: Well, to the extent the realignment scheme includes adding playoff slots and/or altering the current divisional structure, it could work. Right now it seems to me that the key is to make sure that the Yankees/Red Sox financial hegemony doesn’t become a playoff slot hegemony too, and that even in years when the two of them are pushing 100 wins, that another AL East team can have a puncher’s chance at a playoff slot.

My personal preference is a radical scheme in which divisions are totally abolished and the top four or five teams from each league, regardless of geography, make the playoffs. And of course it comes with a totally balanced schedule so it’s all fair. And no, I see there being zero chance in hell that such a thing would ever happen.

ST: I’m not out to point fingers, and also think that PED use should be legal (what a person does with his or her own body is their business), but is it a stretch to think that Toronto’s Jose Bautista has taken advantage of the newest potion that MLB hasn’t caught on to yet?

CC: Well, we’ve certainly learned that nothing is impossible and that to pretend no one is doing anything wrong is the short road to hell. I think, though, that if you are going to have a testing system, you have to presume innocence until guilt arises, lest you tacitly admit that your testing is a sham. Could Bautista be on PEDs of some kind? Sure. But I’m not going to start from the position of skepticism with him. I need something else to go on besides his home run totals.

ST: With the caveat that it’s a fool’s errand making playoff predictions in July, who do you think makes the cut? And what Series matchup would like to see?

CC: I like Boston, New York (WC), the White Sox (I’m still clinging to my pre-season pick) and the Rangers in the AL. In the NL it’s Philly, Atlanta (WC), St. Louis, and San Francisco. The World Series matchup I’d like to see is Boston and Atlanta. The one I think we will see is Boston and Philly. Who wins? Who knows?

ST: I imagine the Twins’ management isn’t feeling too bullish about their huge investment in Joe Mauer? Do you think he’s this generation’s Don Mattingly?

CC: It’s a little frightening. I think his second half numbers will tell us a lot. No matter what he does, his overall season totals are going to look bad, but if he has a Mauer-like second half, I’m not willing to call him a bust yet. I do think his catching days may be over, though, and thus even if he does hit well, his contract is going to be way worse by virtue of the defensive value he brings.

ST: Based on our previous interviews, and detours in politics, I’d guess you’re disappointed in President Obama’s first term. Is there any Republican you’d vote for instead, or is that notion just not in your DNA?

CC: No, I’m not disappointed at all. My vote for Obama was not because of some presumed progressive agenda he’d pursue. Indeed, I didn’t believe for a minute he’d pursue one, and I’m sort of glad he didn’t because I’m not all that fierce a progressive. My attraction to Obama was that he seemed like a pragmatist. A sensible guy who will, for the most part, deal with the world as it is, not as he wished it would be. With Bush we had eight years in which a guy who called himself a conservative pursued a pretty utopian set of policies often divorced from reality, and that kind of thing scares the hell out of me.

The current problems our country faces aren’t the sorts of things that one president is going to turn around in a term or two. The unemployment rate and all of that is a function of tectonic shifts in the global economy and the necessary unraveling of the social order of the 20th century. They are not a function of Obama’s discretionary spending priorities and won’t be fixed by some right-winger getting tough on Planned Parenthood. At a time like this, I want a person in charge who is capable of taking that in and not lurching the country back and forth while it all plays out. In that sense, I’m cool with Obama. I’d probably be cool with Jon Huntsman or someone like him too if I had to go in that direction (I am not, nor will I ever be committed to a party over a person), but nothing Obama has done or hasn’t done stands to change my vote for him as things sit today.

ST: Who’s the best manager in baseball today?

CC: Tough question. I tend to base my assessment of a manager mostly on how he deploys his resources and manages his people, not so much on wins and losses or brilliant in-game strategy. If the guy uses his bullpen wisely and doesn’t keep his best players out of games for no good reason, I think they’re doing a good job. Overlaying all of that is the general clubhouse vibe. The less drama, the better. For years I praised Atlanta’s Bobby Cox on those terms, and I think he was the best going for many years.

Now that he’s gone: Boston’s Terry Francona is a pretty good candidate. Everything seems to hum pretty well with that club, even when things aren’t going well on the field, and that’s the most you can ask.

ST: Can Hanley Ramirez recover his mojo or is he damaged goods? And will the Marlins finally attract fans next year when they have their new ballpark in downtown Miami?

CC: I think he can, but he needs to screw his head on. He hasn’t been focused this year and some say he didn’t come into the season physically ready either. There are worse things—he could be a mental defective like Milton Bradley—but I don’t think it’s so dire with him. The Marlins will draw pretty well in the new park. It won’t be fabulous—people in Miami still don’t seem all that baseball crazy—but it will be way easier for people in the city to go to games in the new location than it is in the current one.

ST: How do you think Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, just to name two superstars from the 1950s, would fare in today’s baseball world? My bet is that they’d both be spectacular—talent is talent—but others disagree.

CC: I agree, they’d both be spectacular. Speed and defense is what I think would trip up a lot of the old-timers if they were transplanted into today’s game, but Mays and Mantle had both of those to spare. I do think that if Mantle didn’t take care of himself in today’s game like he didn’t in the 1960s that he’d be out of it even sooner than he was.

It may take them some time to adjust to the different kinds of pitching they’d see today—people didn’t throw cutters back in their day—but both of them had so much baseball intelligence and refined skill that I think they’d be perennial All-Stars, just like they used to be.

  • Shoot, I guess I shouldn't have read Moneyball, but I'm going to the movie anyway. Tim McCarver is in the Chris Schenkel Hall of Fame on the first ballot. Smith, your guy here cannot be all bad if he is still behind the ChiSox. The Obama stuff seems a little off track. Too bad about Joe Mauer, but whoopee, Go Sox. God bless Abner Doubleday or whoever invented this game.

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  • If Moneyball is anything like the Blind Side I'd be happy. The book was obviously better, being more focused on Michael Oher and his early football career, as opposed to the Leigh Ann Tuohy. Not to mention the evolution of the Left Tackle thanks to Lawrence Taylor, which is half the book. However, the movie stands alone from the book with a different goal entirely, and I can respect that. Moneyball does look a little suspect, though. I'll still swag it out.

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