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Dwight Evans

February 19, 2012 Leave a comment

1986 Topps baseball card

Boston Red Sox right fielder Dwight Evans is one of my heroes. Of course, everyone on the 1975 Red Sox is one of my heroes, so that’s not saying much. But I was always impressed with how Dewey, regarded by all Sox fans as the greatest defensive right fielder of the time, turned himself into a great hitter too. In 1983, at the age of 31, despite winning a gold glove, he had a terrible year at the plate, with a batting average was .238, OBP of .338, slugging .436, with 22 homers and 58 RBIs. (See here for stats.) I thought he would only get worse. Instead, he got better. Four years later, an all-star year, his numbers were .305/.417/.569, with 34 homers, 123 RBIs, and a league-leading 106 walks.

You can study the numbers. Indeed you should, because what we’re talking about is a player with a Hall of Fame level career who has never gotten his due. Fortunately, Bill James has now made the case, in a persuasive piece published a week ago at Grantland titled An Open Letter to the Hall of Fame About Dwight Evans. (Hat tip: Joe Posnanski, without whom I would have missed this.) With James on the case, I needn’t say more. I’ll turn it over to him, quoting just the opening of his extended argument:

I hope you understand that I would never sacrifice my reputation by arguing that a player belongs in the Hall of Fame if I did not sincerely believe this to be true. Yes, Dwight Evans works for the Red Sox, and I work for the Red Sox, and I’m not saying this is not relevant to why I am writing, but … I wouldn’t argue that Dwight Evans had a Hall of Fame quality career if the kinds of analysis that I do all the time did not show this to be true. It’s not really that I wouldn’t; I couldn’t. I’ve spent years explaining to the public every step I take in evaluating a player. If I didn’t follow those steps, the people who have read my stuff over the years would know immediately that I wasn’t playing by the rules, and they would tear me a newbie over it right away.

Let us start with the proposition that Dwight Evans is one of the most underrated players in baseball history. There are certain things that make players underrated. The most important of these is that a player who does several things well will always be underrated compared to a specialist, just because of the way the human mind works. We absorb simple concepts more readily than complex ones. If a player hits .325, if he hits 40 homers, if he steals 70 bases, we get that immediately. If a player does many things well but no one thing spectacularly well, he may have equal value but it takes longer for the public to catch on.

Dwight Evans was a player who did many things very well — hitting almost 400 home runs, drawing a lot of walks, winning a long string of Gold Gloves, and even registering pretty decent batting averages, .290 or better five times in eight years. His batting average, however, was not his specialty, particularly early in his career, and given that batting average was at that time regarded as the center of the baseball universe, so to speak, this also caused him to be underrated.

On-base percentage is much more closely tied to scoring runs (and to winning games) than is batting average, and in the 21st century all baseball people know this. But in the 1970s very few people knew it, so Dwight Evans was evaluated by the baseball writers of his time more based on his batting averages, which were OK, than on his on-base percentages, which were outstanding.

Then there is the problem of first impressions, that when the place of a player is settled in the public’s mind, it is difficult for him to change how he is seen. The public image of Dwight Evans — as for every player — was formed by his first few years in the major leagues, and in those years he was not a great player; he was a good player, but not yet a great one. Dwight Evans is the very unusual player who had all of his best years in his thirties. About 40 percent of baseball players have all of their best years in their twenties; about 55 percent have some of their best years in their twenties and some in their thirties. Less than 5 percent have all of their best years in their thirties. Dwight Evans is that unusual case: someone who had all of his best years in his thirties, after the public image of him as a .270 hitter with 20-homer type power was set in stone.

James closes with the claim that “Dwight Evans is a Hall of Famer.” Amen.

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Categories: Baseball

Louis Boroson

February 19, 2012 Leave a comment

My 11th grade math teacher, Louis Boroson, died last November. I just learned of his death, thanks to a posting of the obituary notice on Facebook by one of my classmates. Reading the obit, I was reminded yet again of how little we know about the adults who mattered to us. We see them as one-dimensional, not appreciating the complex, multi-faceted lives they lead, nor how much we miss as we pass through our self-absorbed youth.

Mr. Boroson (as he was known to me) is described in the obituary as “labor union organizer, math teacher and longtime activist for social justice.” I knew him only in the second capacity, and even then, I wasn’t convinced he was all that knowledgeable a teacher, though his decency and concern for others shined through.

We were not the best match. I, talented at math from a young age and deciding at 8 that I would be a mathematician; Mr. Boroson, as the obit explains, becoming the entire math department of a small school in his first position, having to teach “himself the curriculum every night before teaching it to students.” Our high school, now widely recognized as among the best in New York State with a vast array of offerings, had few options for accelerated students at the time. And through an unfortunate set of circumstance, owing to an experiment with the math curriculum in 9th grade for those of us in the accelerated or honors track that apparently was deemed a failure, we were basically covering much the same ground in 11th grade. It was a lost year for me. I would take my math at a local college the next year, but that year I just bided my time. Class was deathly boring and Mr. Boroson wasn’t equipped to offer me any alternatives.

One consequence was that for the only time in my years at school, I became something of a nuisance. I was always a good boy, never talking out of turn, never causing any behavioral problems, doing everything asked of me. But not in Mr. Boroson’s class. I was unhappy, he was unhappy, no solution presented itself. Later in the year he would suggest, on occasion, that I help other students who were having difficulty. I can’t remember how that worked out.

The memory that stands out, though, is of an entirely different nature. Spring of that year was the spring of 1968. War. Assassination. And locally, protests at Columbia University culminating in the student takeover of the president’s office in Low Library. That events of the real world could enter our high school classroom was beyond my imagination, until Mr. Boroson brought them in. On April 30th, the New York City police forcibly removed the occupiers. The next day, Mr. Boroson put math aside and led a discussion of the Columbia protest.

This is the Mr. Boroson I remember with respect, warmth, and admiration, one whose “commitment to his students went well beyond the math curriculum.” The obituary goes on to explain that “he was committed to helping students think critically about the political environment, and was particularly devoted to supporting students who seemed adrift. He began every math class by hosting a discussion on current events, encouraging friendly debate among his students.” No daily current events discussions back then, but the seeds were there.

The obituary quotes Barbara Murphy, my 10th grade English teacher, describing him as “a generous, progressive, open-minded man who willingly and wholeheartedly gave to his students, to his colleagues, to the world at-large with an optimism and spirit that encouraged the best in those he touched.” A good man. I wish I had the opportunity to renew our acquaintance later.

Categories: Math, Obituary

Moby-Duck

February 19, 2012 Leave a comment

I mentioned a week ago that I had just downloaded and begun reading Donovan Hohn’s Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them. Janet Maslin’s weekday NYT review, which appeared a year ago this week, got me interested. The Sunday review by Elizabeth Royte two weeks later inspired me to download and read the free opening portion. But I wasn’t inspired to read further at the time. I simply added the title to my list of books to go back to some day.

Three months ago, Maslin placed Moby-Duck on her list of ten recommended books for 2011, re-kindling my interest. I re-read the reviews last weekend and took the plunge. Here, for instance, is a portion of Royte’s enthusiastic review:

“Hast seen the white whale?” a Melville-loving officer aboard a research vessel asks Donovan Hohn, in his dazzling “Moby-Duck,” whenever they pass in the ship’s corridor.

“Hast seen the yellow duck?” Hohn cheerfully responds.

The answer is always no, but this hardly dampens Hohn’s enthusiasm for his Moby — a load of bath toys that plummeted off a storm-wracked container ship in the northern Pacific in 1992. The maritime misfortune was exciting for beachcombers, who would find the toys on North American coastlines for years to come, and it provided data for scientists who study ocean currents. It also spurred the map-loving Hohn, a dozen years on, to give up his Manhattan teaching gig and embark upon what could have been a fairly straightforward investigation. Where did the ducks come from, where did they drift, and why?

… The duck’s world is large, it turns out, and the desire to chart it puts Hohn on seagoing vessels of varying sizes and seaworthiness with captains courageous and cranky. … As the ducks drift, so drifts Hohn, from the China-based toy industry to the depths of polymer chemistry; from a history of childhood to Sesame Street’s “Rubber Duckie” and the role of animals in art; from early Arctic exploration to modern maritime disasters and the study of hydrography. Hohn is game to learn as much as he can, and his scholarship is impressive. But his real interests are far more abstract: the nature of quests, the line between fable and fact, the distinction between the natural and the man-made worlds, and the impossibility of fully understanding one’s place — to say nothing of a toy duck’s — in relation to the universe.

[snip]

“Moby-Duck” succeeds as harebrained adventure, as a cautionary environmental tale, as a deconstruction of consumer demand, and as a meditation on wilderness and imagination. Hohn moves easily between the micro and the macro, weaving personal histories into science and industry as he roams. … Hohn seems to have it all: deep intelligence, a strikingly original voice, humility and a hunger to suss out everything a yellow duck may literally or metaphorically touch. Naturally, he can’t, but the chase is, after all, the thing.

Sounds great. But Hohn’s deep intelligence and strikingly original voice have eluded me. Through the first fourth or so of the book, I considered abandoning ship. Friday night I read a big chunk, today another fourth, bringing me three-fourths of the way through, and now I’m committed to seeing the book to its conclusion.

The book is organized around a sequence of trips, each exploring some facet of beachcombing, garbage, the environment, plastics, manufacturing in China, container shipping. We’ve been to southern Alaska by Sitka, farther north Alaska along the Kenai Peninsula, south of Hawaii’s Big Island, Hong Kong and southeast China, a container ship sailing from Pusan to Seattle, and now an oceanographic cruise from Woods Hole to Greenland aboard a famous research vessel, the Knorr.

I have learned some interesting tidbits about ocean currents and weather, the risks of a career on container ships, though I hunger for more detail. It’s been fun to meet the characters Hohn sails with, though again I wish he told us more. I have come to appreciate the fascinating lives led by oceanographers — academic and non-academic. (Russ, you’ll have to tell me more. Are you fascinating too?) But when Hohn meditates on the deeper meaning of toys, or the sea, or whatever topic he probes in greater depth — or when he connects what he learns to his own life — I lose interest.

Back to the North Atlantic. I’m enjoying this part.

Categories: Books