After having to bail early on a chat, the inestimable Joe Morgan returned to Sports Nation yesterday. (If you're an "ESPN Insider" you can see the entire thing here.)
My joke theory was that he was pulled aside and warned to dumb himself down for the paying audience. I leave it to you to decide if that was farfetched. But since FJM has already fisked the darkness, I decided to take a different approach and light a small candle instead. Below, I have handled the questions that FJM reproduced from the chat as if they were asked of me instead of Joe Morgan. (I've included his answers as well, in Spoiler Vision - you need to highlight the gaps to see it.)
Nora (St. Louis): What do you think of sign stealing? Do you consider it a perfectly ok way to gain a competive edge, or do you compare it to other forms of cheating (steroids; doctoring baseballs)?
Nightfly: There's no comparison here. Stealing signs is far less of a problem. It's really a slender edge to begin with - even if the hitter knows what's coming he may miss the pitch or hit it dead to a fielder. Steroids are a permanent, decisive advantage. More importantly, Ken Caminiti didn't die of stolen signs.
Joe Morgan: Unfortunately baseball has its own set of rules to determine what's cheating and what's not. I think it's cheating. Guys corking bats, guys scuffing balls, etc. I think it's all cheating. It's all cheating. It changes the game from being a fair game to giving an advantage.
Matt (DC): 'Fly, where would you rate David Ortiz among the all-time great clutch hitters in the game?
Nightfly: Well, you'd usually rather have the guy with the 13 game-winning hits than the guy with none. But because of the nature of the game, even a great clutch hitter is going to be put out more often than not, whether or not it's the first or the last of the ninth. The better measure of Ortiz' value is his overall production. A lot of Boston's games don't require last-licks heroism because Ortiz and his teammates can bash you into submission in the first eight innings. Also, notice that Papi's numbers are a bit down so far this year from last (OPS of .928 from 1.001, for example). And a guy considered soft in the clutch, Alex Rodriguez, just won today's game in the bottom of the 12th with a 2-run homer.
Joe Morgan: Thank you for your kind words. I can't rate players among all-timers, but I've said David Ortiz is the best big-time hitter in the game today. The game was different in the past, the pitchers were different, the hitters were different. But you can say he's the best big-game hitter today. And that's by a big margin. some guys seem to focus better when the game's on the line.
Shawn(Kewanee, IL): Hello 'Fly. With the horrendously sloppy game on Sunday and another shut out loss last night, do you think it is time for the Chicago Cubs to part ways with Dusty Baker and begin a mini firesale with some of their veteran players?
Nightfly: Past time, I'm afraid. The team's window to contend has closed, and Mark Prior and Kerry Wood may never be the same after all the overwork. It's not entirely fair to Baker to pin it on him, especially once Derrek Lee got hurt, but the team doesn't even seem competitive any more - an eight-game losing streak, two sixes, and a five that they just broke this afternoon. It's not even the All-Star Break yet.
Carlos Zambrano is still only 25; he issues a lot of walks but is the closest Chicago has to a healthy starter. If the Cubs can hold onto him while they rebuild, he will be a veteran entering his prime years just as the rest of the team is ready to contend. They have to protect him from overwork lest he break down as well, and Dusty Baker is not easy on his starting pitchers.
Joe Morgan: As you may or may not know, Dusty is a friend of mine and I'm a big fan. Everyone Who Has Ever Heard Joe Morgan Speak: (in unison) We know.But that doesn't keep me from being objective. It's not all Dusty's fault, but if you continue the way they are, you have to have a change. They've built their club on Prior and Wood and they've been hurt. If you fire Dusty, then you're back to the pre-Dusty era and that's the way they're playing right now. The Cubs can't continue along these lines. I think Dusty one of the best managers out there. I don't think you can fire him until the season's over anyway.
Dustin (hampton,tn): will the yankees pick up another outfielder or pitcher, or do they need one to make it to the post season?
Nightfly: The problem is that the Yankees really don't have anyone they can move to get someone of everyday quality. Teams are beginning to jockey for help with about five weeks left before the trade deadline - LA moving Jae Seo and Dioner Navarro, for example. The Yanks don't even have two players like that to spare. The rotation will be all right, I think, but the outfield is the big problem. Melky Cabrera, after a shaky start, has picked up admirably for Hideki Matsui. But Sheffield's out two more months, and what's left of Bernie Williams isn't going to cut it in right field. If Damon gets hurt again, it will be a very long summer.
Joe Morgan: The Yankees, like everyone, has weaknesses. (…) (And here FJM cut the answer, so I assume it wasn't bad.)
Andy (New York): 'Fly, I think it's a shame that Alex Rios isn't even on the All-Star ballot. The average fan isn't going to write him in. Thoughts on this and the All-Star voting process?
Nightfly: Since Rios is only a third-year player and hadn't distinguished himself before, it's not that surprising he wasn't on the ballot. Outfield is a crowded place. Since the game could get his team home-field advantage in the World Series, Ozzie Guillen will likely give him proper consideration as a reserve.
MLB has an online system for voting, which ought to give breakout players a shot at All-Star recognition. Unfortunately, you have to go through registration, uncheck the "send me annoying emails" boxes so you don't get spammed, and then scroll down to the write-ins - which are limited to TWO. This really limits the voter.
Joe Morgan: The All-Star process has always been flawed, even when the players voted themselves, the players voted the veterans in. There is no perfect way to do this. I look up and see the Yankees have more votes than anyone else…There are so many flaws that I don't think you'll have a perfect system. I prefer for the players to have more of a say in it. But it's for the fans. It's a tough situation.
Joe Morgan: The reason I say that, I was elected both ways and I was elected by the players and the fans. I got the most votes by the fans a couple of times. It's hard to say which way was better. I was happy in both cases. There is no perfect system.
Tom (East Lansing): Mussina, HOF bound or not?
Nightfly: If it was up to me, no, he just misses. He's been very good for very long, sort of the Don Sutton of his era, and Sutton got in; but you never got the "wow, let's go to the park, Sutton's pitching tonight" feeling. But the reality is that Mussina will get in if he can pitch three more solid seasons. He will probably hit a lot of the important career milestones: 3000 K (currently at 2500), 250 wins (he has 233 now); he already has 3000 IP. His runners per nine is a respectable 1.177 and his ERA is 3.63 in one of the most explosive offensive cycles in baseball history. Mussina's been in the top-five of the AL in a bunch of categories a bunch of times, but has rarely led the league in anything. He's never topped 218 K, and he has one runner-up in the Cy Young ('99). Great, but not dominant.
Joe Morgan: I don't think his career is over yet. To my knowledge, he hasn't won 20 games, which means he wasn't a dominant pitcher in his era, but then we have to see how many total wins he finishes up with. There are a lot of guys that have a lot more wins that aren't in. It's a number crunch from here on out.
Prince (Pittsburgh): What would you say is the main reason the Pirates can't win? Individually the players are talented, although a bit young, why can't this team at least be competitive?
Nightfly: The Penguins look like they have a promising future, so hopefully the new owner won't move them out of the city. The Pirates, however, haven't got things so good. The sweep to Kansas City was extraordinarily embarrassing, of course; the overall picture isn't better. The Buccos are bottom third of the majors in most of the major categories (OPB, ERA, runs scored) and they don't have as much talent as some of the other younger teams in baseball. One of the very few assets the team has, Craig Wilson, got hurt tonight, too. Unfortunately, even after the current slide ends (13 losses and counting) Pittsburgh isn't going to break the streak of sub-.500 seasons (2006 will be 14).
Joe Morgan: I think that's a very good question and I don't get to see the Pirates very much. I haven't seen them to judge myself to see how good they are individually. In this era, we seem to overrate how good players are. These last four or five years, people have overrated talent on certain teams. I see a lot of inconsistency there with overrated talent. I can't give you a real good answer, because I haven't seen them play as much. But make no mistake, a lot of times guys are overrated in their ability.
Larry (WEST ISLIP,NY): It certainly looks like some semblance of parity is returning to baseball. The Braves are finished and the Yankees are not far behind. What do you think?
Nightfly: Hey! Fellow Lawn Guy Lander. Welcome.
The Yankees are certainly in trouble. The outfield, we've covered; that great infield has kept them in things but unless Boston stumbles badly they are probably out of the playoffs. The Braves haven't got the pitching, and without Chipper Jones or Andruw Jones at 100% they've got no chance to catch the Mets.
But I wouldn't call it parity. You don't see a huge logjam at the tops of the divisions, just the normal cycling of decent teams improving and other teams struggling. We're not used to seeing the Braves and Yankees back in the pack after 10 year-runs of excellence, but those extended runs were the unusual thing, not the current downside of the cycle.
Joe Morgan: I don't like the word parity, I say mediocrity. There are a lot of mediocre teams out there. The talent pool is thinner now than it's been. You can go from first to last and last to first. I don't know if it's parity as much as mediocrity.
Sam (St. Louis): The Cards have lost seven straight games. Seven. Seven straight. That stings. It actually stings. Please, give me something to hope for. The Cards will pull out of this.. wont they?
Nightfly: Luckily for the Cards they got Pujols back, and remain a dangerous hitting team. But Mark Mulder's arm has got to worry them. Their starters (outside of Chris Carpenter) have really blown hot and cold this year. Mulder himself struggled before finally going on the DL, with his ERA shooting up by nearly 2.5 runs in the space of just six starts. I don't think they're to be caught from behind by a team like Milwaukee. Houston could challenge - maybe - but six games is surprisingly hard to make up in half a season, and it usually requires an extended struggle from the team(s) above them.
The big challenge will come from Cincinnati. The Reds' starting rotation has been better, their hitting has been worse; they're only a couple of games back. They play Cleveland while the Cards get to fatten up on KC for three days. After that, it really depends on if Mulder can come back in good form, and whether St. Louis can continue to get a strong contribution from young Anthony Reyes (after four starts, he has a 2.16 ERA and 0.8 WHIP in 25 IP).
Joe Morgan: I think they'll pull out of it, because they're making me look bad. I picked them to win their division and play the Mets for the championship. The big problem, the starting pitching hasn't done as well as anticipated. I think it starts with their starters. They need some consistency.
Mike (St. Louis): Joe, have you noticed catchers giving multiple signs with no runners on base? I don't remember that happening in the past. Why is that?
Nightfly: Could be a lot of things. Remember the sign-stealing question from before? Some teams may be trying to keep things complicated to forestall that. Others may want to keep things somewhat consistent and not constantly switch systems with runners on base.
Joe Morgan: I think you're very observant, because I've noticed it as well. (...) [Again, little or no continuation. Next time I have to copy the thing myself.]
Jarron (Cleveland, OH): Hello, Mr. Fly. Between all the interviews, chats, research, and watching and calling games, how much time in season do you think you spend per week?
Nightfly: Well, I have a day job. In fact, I'm not answering these within a minute or two like a journalist would do during a chat - I have to do the research that a paid professional would (hopefully) already have done. So far it's taken me about three hours just to get this far, thanks to the excellent resources at MLB.com and baseball-reference.com.
Joe Morgan: That's difficult to say, because I'm a fan first - I read the newspaper and watch the highlights as fans do. But I don't have an hour time, or whatever. I spend quite a bit of time on baseball, but it's just part of what I do, because I enjoy the game.
Ryan (Buckhead): 'Fly, do you think Vernon Wells is the best all around CF in the game?
Nightfly: He had a very good 2003, and is having a great 2006. He needs more than that. But he is in the mix along with Andruw Jones, who's a little off this season but has historically been productive for much longer than Wells; and Carlos Beltran, who is rebounding from a poor year. You could probably put Torii Hunter in there as well - better on the bases, and at least as good with the glove. There just isn't a lock greatest CF right now, just a bunch of very good ones who've either had a subpar year recently or who have been hurt.
Joe Morgan: Well, I would have to say he's in the top 2 or 3. He's had the potential. The problem in the past has been his consistency. (…)
Ben (Boston): Has American league pitching gotten better, or has the hitting just become worse. And if it is better pitching then why haven't there been any NO-NO's in the past couple of years.
Nightfly: A single-game accomplishment isn't enough to draw a good conclusion for the entire year, and especially a no-hitter; too many fluky things can happen in one game to break up a no-hit bid, and sometimes the darndest guys wind up throwing one. Was Doc Gooden a better pitcher from '84-'90, or when he got his no-hitter for the Yanks in '96?
For everyone who seems to be running in place offensively in the AL, you could point to others who are suddenly hot. Giambi has his swing back, though his part in the doping of baseball is such that his accomplishments are suspect. Wells (as mentioned above) is having a great season, but Ortiz is a little down. Jim Thome has been rejuvenated in Chicago. Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore are slugging well. It's tough to point to a startling decline in overall hitting.
Joe Morgan: I don't really think the pitching has gotten better. I watch games and maybe in the some cases the pitching is better, but I don't think it's gotten better. I just think there are a lot of things that say the hitting is down a little bit overall. We might as well be blunt and say that the testing for steroids and other drugs is part of the reason. Amphetamines may be as big a problem as the steroids.
At this point in the chat, things broke up. Morgan finished up and Ken Tremendous of FJM started pulling his every utterance to bits. And then I sat up twice as long as I thought I'd need to in order to finish my little experiment. God bless Joe Morgan, anyway. I don't think I'll be doing this next week.