Roster business is just too much
How did you like that wild September ballgame Wednesday night?
And it was September baseball, and only September baseball, with all those Gathrights, Reddicks, Browns, and Lowries having a hand in the Red Sox’ victory. That game could not have taken place in March, April, May, June, July, August, October, or - sorry to remind you - November.
That’s because September means expanded rosters, a form of peculiar madness unique to baseball. Major League Baseball is the only one of our primary team sports in which there is one set of parameters for the first five-plus months and a different set of parameters in the final month, when, presumably, the most important games of the season are played.
Only baseball allows a team to increase the available personnel for the man running the ballgame by as much as 62 percent. The rosters are set at 25 men per game for the vast majority of the year. Come September, if your budget and dugout space are sufficient (players used to sit in the stands at Tiger Stadium, with its infamous teeny-weeny dugouts), a manager can manipulate as many as 40 players if he chooses.
No one goes that crazy, but teams of means routinely add anywhere from five to eight men to the roster. Terry Francona used 16 of his 17 available position players Wednesday, and the 17th, George Kottaras, would have been catching had the game gone into extras. Granted, he was down two men (Kevin Youkilis and Victor Martinez), but 17 is still a lot.
He used them because he was allowed to, but that doesn’t mean he’s entirely comfortable with the concept.
He likes it, he declared, “if we win.’’
“Actually, I’m against it,’’ he continued. “I think we’ve gotten to the point where we need an amendment to the rule. We play all year under one set of rules, and when we get to Sept. 1, it’s vastly different.’’
It offends his sense of managerial order. The rest of the time, a manager can scheme and prepare for matchups. He has the data and he has the memory bank. But when a manager has seemingly unlimited personnel to maneuver, you may not know whom you’re matching up with.
“There are a lot of variables at play, and I’m not saying I don’t like it,’’ said Angels manager Mike Scioscia, “but I agree with Terry on that one. You have a report on a guy, but it’s not the same as seeing him in the batter’s box.’’
History teaches us that the most common component a team adds in these matters is speed. Joey Gathright is a perfect example. Tito has employed the noted speedster, picked up from Baltimore Aug. 29, five times and he has scored four runs.
“We did it with both Chone Figgins and Reggie Willits,’’ said Scioscia. “You can change a situation very quickly by putting speed into it. We value that a lot.’’
The value is obvious. Pinch runners. Defensive replacements. On Wednesday night, Francona pinch hit for Jason Varitek and then pinch hit for his replacement, Dusty Brown. The skipper replaced Rocco Baldelli in right field with Brian Anderson, but when Anderson’s turn to bat came in the eighth, he hit J.D. Drew for him, and Drew stayed in the game long enough to draw a walk in the middle of the two-run eighth and get an infield single in the middle of the two-run rally in the ninth. During the regular season, American League managers don’t often use three men in one spot.
So, come on. Basketball, hockey, and football don’t do this. Why should baseball?
“It’s discussed annually at the general managers’ meetings,’’ confirmed Sox general manager Theo Epstein. “Doug Melvin, in particular. He says it makes no sense to play all year with 25 and then play the most important games with more men. But from a GM and managerial point of view, it is a lifesaver after the fatigue and attrition of the first five months.’’
“It’s nice in lopsided games to get those guys who’ve played 140 games off the field,’’ agreed Scioscia.
We may not know how this got started, but we know it will be hard to get rid of. It’s written into the collective bargaining agreement, and the Players Association loves it because it gives players valuable service time. And if it’s to the benefit of affluent teams more than the financial bottom-feeders, what exactly would be your question?
The benefits of expanded rosters go beyond the obvious effect they may have on any given game. Being able to suit up with the big boys is a reward for a job well done in some cases. It also serves as a nice orientation to big league life.
“A kid gets to go to New York or Boston,’’ Scioscia pointed out. “He sees those fields and those crowds, and he gets used to the routine. There are a lot of benefits.’’
No one is saying it isn’t fun, or useful. How could a manager not appreciate the extra maneuverability?
“It may allow you to do things more aggressively, and do things you might not do during the rest of the season,’’ said Scioscia, who didn’t derive as much benefit from the additional personnel as his rival across the field did in that wild and woolly affair Wednesday night.
It’s fun. It’s useful. But is it right? Isn’t there is a fundamental illogic behind the practice?
Terry Francona has a partial solution.
“You cap the number at, say, 30,’’ he began. “Before every game, you submit your 25-man roster for that game. I think that would be great. But nobody’s calling and asking me.’’
Though he didn’t seem to realize it, what he’s proposing is exactly what basketball, hockey, and football already do. But even that means baseball would be changing the rules for a month every year.
Nobody’s calling and asking me, either, but I say it’s ridiculous.