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An Interview with John Brattain of The Hardball Times

I had the privilege of interviewing John Brattain, who writes regularly for The Hardball Times. The in-depth, candid manner in which he approaches the questions is remarkable, especially considering it's all for a little old blog like ours. He recently wrote an article entitled "May Jay! May Jay!", which, as the title suggests, pertains to the Blue Jays and their many plights. Moreover, he wrote a season preview of the 2006 Blue Jays prior to the regular season. On a personal note, his articles are a joy to read, both for their humour and their insight into the game of baseball.

Bluebird Banter: How did you first become a baseball fan, and a fan of the Blue Jays in particular? Also, if you have any favourite all-time players, cherished baseball memories, or interesting stories, please feel free to share them with us.

John Brattain: Ummm, for as long as I can remember sports were on T.V.--hockey, baseball football (mostly the CFL) and I developed a few early heroes: George Armstrong, Russ Jackson, a young Johnny Bench etc. My dad was a Yankees fan however and at the time I just enjoyed watching games on our little black-and-white television. I was about three or four years old when I was first introduced to sports cards. Mostly NHL, CFL and MLB--and I was immediately hooked.

However then something incredibly cool happened. We heard that Canada was getting a major league baseball team--the Montreal Expos. It felt like the first time you were invited to play road hockey with the big kids. The NHL and CFL were as normal as snow to a boy from Canada but this was an invite to play with the big boys down south. I remember in kindergarten the teacher would give us a big sheet of paper and fold and unfold it so we could paint a picture on either side. Well one side had a picture of Mudcat Grant and the other Coco Laboy (I thought the names were so awesome at the time which is probably why I remembered them)--at least that's what they were supposed to be. I imagine they probably looked like somebody had puked up a pizza on the paper.

As to the Blue Jays--the initial excitement was when it looked like the San Francisco Giants were coming to Toronto. Alas it was not to be. My disappointment was short-lived as it was announced that Toronto was getting an expansion club. About this time my older brother and I were into sibling rivalry in a big way. My brother was a Montreal Canadiens fan and I cheered for the Maple Leafs (try growing up throughout the 1970's dealing with that!) so I decided to jump onto the Blue Jays bandwagon so my brother could have the Expos and I the Jays. Of course we were fans of both clubs but it didn't stop us from getting into arguments over  which team was better.

Favourite all-time players? In no particular order: Rusty Staub, Tug McGraw, Coco Laboy, Joe Carter, Tony Fernandez, Tony Perez, Johnny Bench, Dave Concepcion, Ozzie Smith, Tim Raines, Nolan Ryan, Pat Borders, Devon White, Vladmir Guerrero, Goose Gossage, Travis Fryman, Bernie Williams (more on these two in a moment), Reggie Jackson, Edgar Martinez...I'm probably forgetting a few (but I guess maybe that disqualifies them as all time faves).  

Cherished baseball memories? Too many to mention and they're pretty much what you'd expect: Expos and Jays first games, the 1981 NL playoffs before the Rick Monday home run; 1985, 1992, 1993 etc. But here's a fun one: I lived for a few months in London Ontario back when the Tigers had their AA team there. My brother and I got to know a nice kid with a funky batting stance named Travis Fryman. We weren't best buddies or anything like that but he knew us and we always gabbed with him before games talking baseball. Fast forward to July 1993. My brother and I are at Tiger Stadium and Fryman had doubled, homered and singled.

Suddenly in the sixth he hits an absolute rocket off Bob Wickman that's going into the deepest part of left centerfield between Bernie Williams and Dion James. Now Fryman wasn't exactly fleet of foot but then again neither James or Williams exactly has a cannon out there. The ball gets to the wall and my brother and I are on our feet screaming "Three!! Three!! Three!" like a couple of lunatics. Since Tony Phillips' run made the game 10-7 Yankees (at that point) the people around us were wondering what these two idiots were getting so excited about. When he makes it to third we're whooping it up while folks are debating whether they should call security or not.

After the game we try and make our way to outside the clubhouse hoping to say hi to Fryman but the area surrounding it was packed. When Fryman comes out we yell out his name waving our arms. He looks in our direction and immediately recognizes us flashing a big grin and waving back. We didn't get close enough to talk to him but it was a great moment being there and I like to think he thought it was pretty cool that the two guys he got to know playing at AA were there for the biggest game of his life (he went five-for-five adding another double in the ninth).

Probably my most interesting story as a writer was when I was covering a Blue Jays/Yankees series at the Rogers Center back in 2000. On the Friday I was hanging around the batting cage (BTW that`s probably the greatest perk about having press credentials--watching batting practice up close) doing--or trying to do--interviews. I approach Bernie Williams and ask if he could talk for a few moments. He says "no" and nothing else. So I smiled and wished him a good game and moved on.

On the Saturday game I'm just hanging around the cage watching BP again. Suddenly I get a tap on the shoulder. It's Bernie Williams and he's wondering if I'd like to talk now. He explained that they had a rough flight in the previous day and he was absolutely exhausted. He wanted to save what little energy he had for the game. Williams commented he'd almost never gotten a reaction like that from anybody [in the media] and he really appreciated how I handled his brush off on Friday. So he said he made it a point to find me to make sure I got a good interview as a thank you. Blew me away. I'd heard before then that he was a classy guy and now I can give first-hand confirmation that the reports are true.

That same series I also received a demonstration of how tremendous an athlete you have to be just to be a below-average major league player. Craig Grebeck--to put it mildly--is wound pretty tight. Alberto Castillo on the other hand acts like an ADHD kid that has just polished off a case of [Mountain] Dew Fuel. Anyway, outside the batting cage Grebeck is getting on Castillo's case about being a horse[bleep] hitter. He's really giving it to Castillo who refuses to accept Grebeck's critique. Finally he yells at Grebeck "I'll show you, I'm going to hit a home run." So once the previous batter leaves the cage, he runs in and before he has a chance to settle into the box the BP pitcher immediately tosses a pitch his way. So Castillo whales on it before he even gets to set his feet and he launches it into the left field bullpen. He runs out the batting cage cackling hysterically at Grebeck who isn't quite sure whether to explode or laugh. He settles for suggesting an auto-erotic exercise that is anatomically impossible and walks away while Castillo is darting from player to player pointing out what he just did.

It was hilarious.

Banter: Much has been made of the Blue Jays' middle-infield woes. Aaron Hill, whose hitting has been lackluster but whose defense has been stellar, seems entrenched at shortstop. On the other hand, it's rather unclear as to who will receive most of the playing time at second base. Russ Adams has succumbed to defensive troubles his entire career, while John McDonald and Luis Figueroa don't possess the offensive capabilities to the man the position long term. And Edgardo Alfonzo certainly isn't the answer, as many fans would be quick to attest. If you were in J.P. Ricciardi's position, how would you handle the situation?

Brattain: Well, if Adams continues to hit like he did in May I might be willing to sacrifice a little "D" there to keep his bat in the lineup. As long as they Jays are playing well I'd give Adams every opportunity to earn the second base job. You have to hit or field (he said once again demonstrating his world-class grasp of the obvious). If he can't hit then he sits. If he's raking I'd like to keep him there rather than have a low offense glove man there since that gives you two black holes in the lineup (a black hole defined as where a player's hitting sucks so bad that offense cannot possibly escape). Some options I'd be looking at if I were J.P. include Minnesota's Luis Castillo, either Jose Vidro or Alfonso Soriano from the Nats, and I might even pound of few shots of tequila, reduce my intake of Thorazine and call the Royals and inquire about Mark Grudzielanek.

Banter: With the amateur entry draft quickly approaching, it's a good time to reflect upon the organization's draft history. During the Ricciardi era, management has, for the most part, favoured drafting established college talent as opposed to risky, unproven high school players. Although that strategy has helped create a farm system flush with MLB-ready talent, none of the team's prospects possess star-quality attributes, nor do they seem to have relatively high ceilings. On the other hand, a strategy founded primarily on drafting high school talent may result in a number of busted prospects and wasted draft picks. How would you critique the Ricciardi regime's draft picks? And do you believe organizations should have a predetermined draft strategy, or whether the players available in a given draft should guide their selection process?

Brattain: Here's where I'm probably not as knowledgeable as I should be. However I'm a baseball writer and sometimes I can't be bothered with silly things like facts, logic or God forbid--research. This of course does not prevent me from having an opinion however misinformed as it might be. I really think it's too early to fully judge J.P.'s drafts just yet--in a year or two we'll have a better idea since a lot of his drafts really haven't had a chance to bear much fruit. Ricciardi's philosophy on the other hand I will comment on. As you've pointed out there's risks and rewards with both strategies. Usually I'm quite leery about college pitchers; yes, they're more mature, experienced and likely closer to major league ready. Having said that, college is where young arms sometimes go to die. Coaches and managers at this level have one mandate--win. If that means putting his young stud out there to throw 150-180 pitches to win a game/season/tournament whatever--that's what he's going to do. Some of these guys make Dusty Baker look like he coddles his staff by comparison. He's not concerned about a kid's possible/future major league career he's worried about his job and his own career. His interests are not advanced much if some young he coached ten years ago just signed a huge multi-year free agent contract.

I think it was Bill James that opined TINSTAAPP (there is no such thing as a pitching prospect). If a kid's arm is not healthy he's not going to have much of a major league career regardless of how talented he might be. On the other hand somebody who might not have absolutely mind-blowing raw stuff but is smart enough to know how to use what he has and enjoys command of those pitches--if he's healthy he could enjoy a terrific major league tenure. Look at Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux; their raw stuff might not compare to a Kerry Wood or an A.J. Burnett but they're both smart, have excellent command of their stuff, have been healthy and will likely go into Cooperstown on the first ballot.  

If I'm drafting pitchers I'm looking for a reasonably live arm, smarts, a strong build and at least fair command--somebody who has upside, room to grow and is willing to learn and hasn't had his arm abused too much. I realize some high school programs are as bad as college ones but, to me, a college only has the scholarship invested in a high school pitcher whereas a major league team has a lot more invested in him and will treat his arm accordingly. If I'm drafting a college pitcher I do my homework/background check on him with extreme prejudice.

As to position players I'd be looking at reasonably athletic guys who can hit. It's easier to teach defense than hitting; heck a lot of players were drafted at one position yet by the time they reached the big leagues they played an altogether different one. Major league history is littered with superb glove men that are little more than trivia buffs stump questions but the truly great hitters are probably in the Hall of Fame. I've seen too many amazingly talented athletes who simply couldn't hit and lacked the hand-eye coordination to work the strike zone.

I want athleticism but I'm willing to trade some athleticism for hitting. If you've got a decent athlete who can hit, chances are good he can learn a position defensively.

You asked: "do you believe organizations should have a predetermined draft strategy, or whether the players available in a given draft should guide their selection process?" It's probably a combination of both, you should have a strategy but sometimes you go to the store with the shopping list in hand only to find out the store doesn't carry what you've got on your list--so you've got to go to plan B. What I'd like to see sometime both in the amateur draft and during the free agent period is this: if the crop doesn't look too promising--punt. Draft guys you think might help but don't blow a fortune on them simply because you drafted them in the early rounds and wait for next year. Take the money you saved and try to sign a non drafted player in a foreign league or just save it up until next year when someone you really want (whether in the draft or the free agent pool) comes around. Yes you'll catch some grief in the press but you're trying to win ballgames in both the short and long term--not placate ignorant mediots like myself.

Banter: This season, Alexis Rios has far surpassed everyone's expectations (other than his close friends' and relatives' somewhat biased expectations, I guess). Almost a month ago, I predicted -- based on his increased FB% and LD% as well as last season's surge in power from the year before -- that he would maintain, to an extent, his power production. Conversely, I surmised -- based on his inability to work the count to his liking, his low walk rate, and his abnormally-high BABIP -- that his batting average and on-base percentage would decline a good deal. But that hasn't been the case, as he's thus far managed to maintain his incredibly high level of production. In Friday's article on The Hardball Times, you state that Rios will likely regress at some point in the near future. Could you please elaborate on that and make an educated guess as to how significant his regression will be?

Brattain: Educated guess? From me? Obviously you haven't been reading my stuff very long or you'd know better than that. As you've mentioned indirectly, Rios OBP is highly BA driven. Rios reminds me of a right-handed Lloyd Moseby as a hitter. He'll never be a high OBP guy but I think he'll have a little more power than Shaker with 20-25 HR power (although I may have to revise that a bit). I've mentally pegged him as a .290/.340/.500 type hitter although I think this year he'll end up in excess of those totals. So here's my official Nostradumbass prediction for Rios in 2006: .300/.350/.535 with 30 HR.

I like Rios and I like the fact that Gibbons platooned him in the early going with Eric Hinske; not that I think it's an optimal setup but I think Rios is the kind of player who you need to keep his feet to the fire to keep him focused. Some players you need to coddle, others need a kick in the butt from time to time--Rios is in the latter group. I think the Jays have a good one in him. Rios is what you call very high maintenance but I think well worth the trouble of maintaining. The Johnson/Catalanotto-Wells-Rios outfield is going to serve the Jays very well this year.

Banter: The Blue Jays have managed to stay in the playoff hunt and currently trail the AL East-leading Red Sox by 2.5 games. It's been a while since the Blue Jays were in a position to be "buyers" at the trade deadline. Certainly they have some areas that require an upgrade, so a trade may be warranted. The pitching corps, in particular, has been riddled by injuries and ineffectiveness. As you mention in your article, A.J. Burnett has been injured, Josh Towers has been dreadful, and Gustavo Chacin and Ted Lilly are on the precipice of succumbing to drastic and immediate declines. Would you be in favour of trading for anyone now or in the near future, and are there any seemingly available players on other teams who particularly whet your interest?

Brattain: I think they can afford to be patient for a little while yet with the rotation. I wonder if Seattle might be willing to deal Jarrod Washburn who just started a pricey four year contract so they can start fresh with a roster rebuild. Let's face it, Seattle is a mess and they need desperately to start over. They're stuck with the Beltre contract so it might be easier to move Washburn since he has a bit more value. The Washington Post reported that Livan Hernandez might be available and he has a 2.57 ERA in 28 IP over his last four starts. He has a rubber arm and could take some of the strain off the relief corps.

Admittedly I'm pulling this out of my posterior but I think the Cubs would be willing to let Greg Maddux get one last shot at a ring. The Cubbies are toast and Maddux has a 7.29 ERA in his last six starts. His control is still terrific and I think a change of scenery and a contending team might snap him out of his funk. He'd be an excellent influence on guys like Janssen, Burnett, and Chacin. I'd love to see the D-Train roll into Toronto but I think too many heavy hitters are eyeing him. I know the Phillies are in the hunt and there's been a rumour circulating about a three way between the Yanks-Marlins-Phillies where Pat Burrell goes to New York to shore up their beleaguered outfield, Willis goes to Philadelphia and I'm not sure who the Marlins get--but he'll be cheap and there'll be cash and a pituitary gland to be named later (for David Samson).

Banter: This season, the team will hold two bobblehead nights, one in honour of Cito Gaston and the other in honour of Vernon Wells. Perhaps more creative bobbleheads should be made available, however. At the beginning of the season, Christopher James from the Toronto Baseball Guys website offered a couple creative suggestions: " about GI-Johnson, complete with phony Vietnam papers, or Optimus Loiaza, who transforms from a pile of crap to a Cy Young candidate?" Do you have any light-hearted suggestions, be they bobblehead-related or marketing ideas in general?

Brattain: Well a Damaso Garcia doll with plastic flames that come out of the top of his jersey when you tap the head would be fun. Or when you tap the Robbie Alomar one it shoots water out of its mouth. A George Bell with lip prints on the keester and "Purple Butt" where his name goes on the back of the jersey or maybe a Dave Stieb with mullet hair. I kind of like the idea of a Huck Flener doll with random body parts that come off when you touch it. I think you have to have a Kelly Gruber with crutches and water skis on his feet or an Ed Sprague that drops the ball when touched. I wouldn't do a Benito Santiago or Otis Nixon one because I think it would frighten children and small animals. Of course a great gag gift would be a Duane Ward bobble head that you advertise "allow three weeks for delivery" and it never shows up. Do you think anybody would get the gag with an Alfredo Griffin doll with no legs? I mean you only need legs if you walk and he never did. I'd charge at least $1000 for a Bill Caudill/ Erik Hanson/Joey Hamilton bobble head to make sure that the purchaser would get a guaranteed case of buyer's remorse. A Mike Sirotka doll with no left arm would sell well. Heck Gord Ash would buy the whole stock. Personally I would turn the burner on my stove to "9" and put a Mike Timlin and Joey McLaughlin doll on it to watch them melt because they always seemed to when they got to the ninth. Not that I'm bitter or anything.