Brien Is Right, Murray Chass IS a Hack

Chass’ latest affont to Brien’s peace of mind appeared last week, where Chass relayed a story told to him by ex-baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent.  According to Vincent, several years ago Vincent had the chance to discuss life with ex-Red Sox GM Lou Gorman, and Gorman told Vincent the following story: (1) after the Red Sox 1986 season, the team offered to sign star pitcher Roger Clemens to a long-term contract at $1 million a year, (2) then-baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth (Vincent’s predecessor as Commissioner) told Gorman that the Red Sox were forbidden to pay Clemens more than $500,000 a year, (3) Gorman was forced to go back on his initial offer to Clemens, leaving Clemens and his agent “crazed”, and (4) Gorman felt that the Red Sox’s failure to go forward with their million dollar deal led to Clemens’ departure from the Red Sox in 1996.

According to Vincent-as-reported-by-Chass, Gorman made Vincent promise not to repeat this story until after Gorman was dead.  Gorman passed away the beginning of this month. Vincent waited a decent amount of time (2 weeks or so), then called Chass to relay Gorman’s story. Chass, ever ready to retell tales told out of school, dutifully published this story for our consumption.

If you read the Chass piece quickly, it might make sense to you. Ueberroth was baseball’s Commissioner during its so-called collusion era, when baseball’s leadership and team owners conspired to keep a lid on player salaries.

But in every other respect, Chass’ piece defies common sense. As Brien said, if Ueberroth truly wanted to keep Clemens’ salary at half a million or less, why would he have relayed his order to Lou Gorman? Gorman did not work for Ueberroth. Gorman was an employee of the Red Sox, and took his instructions from team ownership.

Chass’ story is a head-scratcher in other ways that Brien didn’t have time to get to. First things: Chass’ story makes sense only if Gorman’s failure to sign Clemens to that million dollar deal led to Clemens’ departure from the Red Sox in 1996. This is why (according to Vincent) Gorman told Vincent the story of the aborted Clemens deal, because Gorman “wanted someone to explain the Clemens loss by the Red Sox after he [Gorman] was dead.” But how could anyone believe that Gorman’s contract negotiations with Clemens in 1986 caused Clemens to leave the team ten years later, in 1996? Is Chass saying that Gorman wanted to sign Clemens in 1986 to a deal that would have extended past 1996? Chass says only that Gorman wanted to sign Clemens to a “long-term contract”, but in 1986 a long-term contract for a pitcher might have extended out 4 or 5 years.  I don’t think a pitcher has EVER received a contract with a term exceeding 10 years.  If Gorman had intended to sign Clemens to a 12 year contract, or a 15 year contract, surely he would have mentioned that to Vincent.

Is Chass saying that Clemens was so upset about his failure to receive a $1 million salary in 1986 that it forever poisoned his relations with the Red Sox, but Clemens waited until 1996 to seek his revenge and leave Boston? If so, that’s crazy. First, there’s nothing in Clemens’ personality to suggest that he’d wait 10 years to seek revenge. Second, there were many, many interactions between the Red Sox and Clemens in the intervening years between 1986 and 1996 that were more significant than Clemens’ 1987 salary negotiations. True, Clemens held out during 1987 spring training to get a bigger salary (Clemens was paid $650,000 in 1987, above the cap that Chass alleges was set by Ueberroth). But Clemens got his million dollar salary ($1,350,000 to be exact) just a year later, in 1988. In 1989, Clemens signed a 3-year deal with the BoSox at an average salary of $2.5 million, the highest average salary in baseball history up until that time.  In 1992, Clemans signed a four year $20 million deal with the Red Sox.  Sure, Clemens did not always get along with the Red Sox brass, but it would be crazy for Clemens – who was paid about $36 million by the Red Sox – to have departed the Red Sox in 1996 over $350,000 he did not receive 10 years earlier.

Chass is also ignoring the fact that the Red Sox did not try all that hard to retain Clemens in 1996. In 1996, Clemens was 33 years old and in the famous words of then-Red Sox GM Dan Duquette, was in the “twilight of his career”. Clemens had not pitched all that well over the preceding few seasons (at least, that’s what Bill Simmons thinks).  Reportedly, in 1996 the Red Sox offered Clemens a 4 year deal at $6 million a year, not all of which would have been guaranteed.  The Red Sox knew that Clemens had received better offers from the Yankees, Indians and Blue Jays.

It should be obvious that Clemens did not leave the Red Sox in 1996 because he had failed to make a million dollars in 1986.  Clemens left the Red Sox in 1996 in order to make millions of extra dollars in 1997, and thereafter.  In fact, if you look at this rationally, it’s hard to understand what the heck Lou Gorman was talking about when he revealed his life secret to Fay Vincent.  It’s hard to imagine what Gorman could have possibly done back in 1986 that would have persuaded Clemens to accept the fourth best contract offer he’d receive 10 years later.

Another point: Chass’ story makes sense only if it was way out of line for the Red Sox to have offered a million dollars a year to Clemens back in 1986. Unless a $1 million contract was beyond the pale in 1986, there’s no reason why Ueberroth would have stuck his neck out and ordered the Red Sox to pay Clemens $500,000 in 1987.  But in 1986, there was nothing crazy about paying a player $1 million. In 1986, SIXTY-FIVE baseball players received a salary of $1 million or more.  True, some of those million dollar guys were veterans, while Clemens was only 24 years old in 1986.  But in 1986, a 24 year old Met named Darryl Strawberry made $945,000. That same year, Kent Hrbek (26) made $1,060,000, Cal Ripken (26) made $1,150,000, Dwight Gooden (21!) made $1,320,000, Don Mattingly (25) made $1,375,000, Fernando Valenzuela (25) made $1,600,000 and someone named Jose DeLeon (25) made $1,825,000.  In 1986, the Red Sox paid nearly $2 million to 33 year old outfielder Jim Rice, $1,350,000 to 28 year old third baseman Wade Boggs and $1 million to  33 year old outfielder Tony Armas.

More details: in 1986, the Red Sox paid over a million dollars to Bob Stanley, who that year posted a 6-6 record with 16 saves, a 4.37 ERA and a sub-par 91 ERA+. (It was Bob Stanley who uncorked the wild pitch the night of October 25, 1986, allowing the Mets to tie game 6 of the World Series.  He also threw the pitch that Mookie Wilson hit between Bill Buckner’s legs that won game 6 for the Mets, though Stanley can hardly be blamed for that.) That same year, Clemens went 24-4 with a 2.48 ERA and a 169 ERA+, and he won both the American League Cy Young and MVP awards.  So please tell me, why would then-Commissioner Peter Ueberroth think it way out of line for the Red Sox to offer Clemens in 1987 a bit less than they had paid Stanley in 1986? In 1987, Clemens was entering his fourth season as a major leaguer, just the same as Gooden, so why in the world would Ueberroth require the Red Sox to pay Clemens in 1987 less than half of what Gooden had received in 1986?

It makes no sense.

It’s up to journalist Murray Chass to explain to us why he chose to believe this crazy story. It’s also up to journalist Murray Chass to corroborate this crazy story before repeating in on the net.  The closest thing to corroboration offered by Chass is his telephone interview with Clemens’ former agent Randy Hendricks, who said “I remember we had a deal [in 1986], then Lou said he couldn’t do that. He didn’t give me a satisfactory reason about it.”  That’s not much corroboration. There’s nothing there about Peter Ueberroth, or the proposed deal being long-term, or the deal being for $1 million a year or Clemens or his agent being “crazed” once the deal was changed.  In fact, Chass freely admits that Hendrick’s version of the facts “doesn’t jibe” with that of Gorman.

All we know from Hendricks is that Gorman reached an agreement with Hendricks, then told Hendricks that the Red Sox could not go through with the deal. Maybe the deal was vetoed by Red Sox ownership. Maybe Gorman himself had second thoughts about the deal.  We just don’t know.

But the Hendricks quote is the closest thing to corroboration that Chass has to offer.  Of course, the best possible corroboration would come from Ueberroth himself.  But as Chass reported, Ueberroth has flatly denied the story. Chass might have received corroboration from player’s union officials who had investigated the collusion in the late 1980s by Ueberroth and the various baseball team owners.  Such a union official might have confirmed that Ueberroth typically ordered club GMs to overturn their too-generous contract offers. But Chass wrote that Gene Orza, then associate general counsel for the player’s union, thought that the Gorman story was “mistaken”.

Why does Chass choose to believe Gorman and not Ueberroth?  According to Chass, “[i]t seems unlikely … that Gorman would tell a tale in which he acknowledged being part of an illegal act and told of how worried he was that he might have to admit it under oath if it weren’t true.” Mmm-hmm. So Chass believes Gorman because he does not think Gorman would lie. Evidently, Chass thinks that Ueberroth would lie and that Orza would lie.  Evidently, Chass does not think that Vincent would lie. Evidently, Chass thinks that his opinion of who is lying and who is not is an adequate substitute for verifying and corroborating his story.

So, let’s sum up.  Chass’ story makes no sense on its face. There’s no reason to believe the story that Vincent says was told to him by Gorman.  It is crazy to believe that Gorman thought Clemens left the Red Sox in 1996 over a $350,000 payroll dispute in 1986.  There’s no reason to believe that Ueberroth would blatantly break the law and try to pressure a Red Sox GM to reneg on a $1 million commitment at a time where there were gobs of $1 million contracts.  There’s no reason to believe that Ueberroth capped Clemens’ 1987 salary at $500,000, when Clemens was actually paid $650,000 in 1987.  Having failed to tell a believable story, Chass then tried and failed to get Ueberroth and Orza to corroborate the story. Clemens’ agent agreed with the story only in small part, and failed to corroborate details of the story that should have been well within his knowledge if those details were true.

All Chass had to go on was a story from a dead man, reported to him after that man’s death by a second man (Vincent) with an evident grudge against Ueberroth and much of the current baseball hierarchy.  That’s just not enough to go on. Chass went with it anyway.  Which is one reason why Chass is a hack.

22 thoughts on “Brien Is Right, Murray Chass IS a Hack

  1. This isn't really about Yankees baseball…and this is the second story written about it…kind of redundant…

  2. I've been following IIATMS for about two years now. The articles you guys and gals come up with are original, well thought-out and the analysis you do is fairly unbiased (except for anything that involves Mo, but he is otherworldly and isn't bound by the same laws of physics we are).

    But I got to say that the Murray Chass articles never seem to fit with the rest of your content here. Maybe I just don't appreciate the disdain Brien and other IIATMS writers have for Chass.

    Especially in this last offseason, I've just been skipping the anti-Murray-Chass rants posted here. But, this time I felt the need to pipe up since I skipped one Chass rant to come to yet another Chass rant.

    I'd like to think that IIATMS is above this. There was a Chass rant a few months back where one of the writers here said something along the lines of "Murray Chass writes what he does because he has a niche audience: those that think these 'new-fangled statistics are ruining the game' and those that just want to read what Chass is writing so they can rail against him. Both of these groups do the same thing: drive up the hits on his website." For the record, that was very loosely paraphrased.

    My point is: Chass needs a niche audience. IIATMS doesn't. You guys are part of the ESPN Sweetspot Network which should lend you some more credibility. But the Murray Chass stuff doesn't belong.

    I'll continue reading IIATMS, since I think its great. And I'll continue skipping the Chass articles as well. Just wanted to get that off my chest. Keep up the good work!

    • I can appreciate that, but like I said when I wrote about Chass smearing Stan Musial, I think these shenanigans need to be responded to because there are people who should know better who take Chass seriously when he tells these stories. He's lost a lot of respect as a a journalist in the last 6 months or so, but I still get semi-defenses of Chass from smart people to the tune of "yes he's an anti-saber dunderhead, but when he tells stories about old baseball people he's great."

      I'm out to disabuse people of that notion.

    • Bill, I'll use your thoughtful comment to respond to many here.

      It may be good advice to let the Murray Chass stuff go. If he's a hack, so be it — let him write what he writes in his little corner of cyberspace, the less attention paid to it, the better. That IS my attitude towards much of what he writes, particularly the stuff he writes about advanced baseball statistics.

      But I truly AM bothered by Chass' recent turn towards character assassination. His piece on Musial was deplorable, and I'm glad that Brien called him out on it. Now we have his piece on Ueberroth. There was such much wrong with the recent Chass piece, so much that didn't make sense, that I felt I should add a comment to Brien's piece supporting what he wrote, particularly when what's at stake is the reputation of other human beings.

      The more I looked the more stuff I found that was just wrong, and as you've doubtless noticed, my comment grew longer than Brien's original post.

      There's a danger when we focus on the nonsense that Chass writes, which is that we give Chass attention he doesn't deserve, or worse, that we spread Chass' nonsense stories to an audience that Chass would otherwise not reach. I'm aware of this danger, and I take it seriously. This is a problem anytime someone writes something we disagree with: sometimes it's better to ignore that something and hope it just goes away.

      But there's another consideration when we're dealing with the internet, and that is the possibility that the essence of the Chass piece is picked up by others. I've run into this before when doing internet research: you encounter a factoid that is reported by dozens of seemingly reputable sites, and you naturally believe that the factoid is well-corroborated. It can take some very determined research to uncover that the source of your factoid was an unsubstantiated rumor that appeared in one place, then was linked to over and over again.

      I get the criticism that, whatever I think of Chass and what he writes, my thoughts do not belong here on IIATMS. OK, point taken. I DO write most of my pieces on topics that (I hope) are of general interest to baseball fans, and that do not directly pertain to the Yankees. My hope is that Yankee fans will find these pieces interesting.

      The reaction to THIS piece seems to be: enough Murray Chass! (Or, if you HAVE to write about Chass, please don't double up on him!) OK. I think I can ignore Chass going forward.

      Thank you for your comments. Thumbs up (to you too, Mark). I love good criticism.

  3. While I didnt read Murray's actual article, reading your recap of it makes him sound like he did a great job with it. From the info you present, he quooted all of his sources, mentioned each person's side of the story and identifies who he chooses to believe. Given that truth in this matter is impoossible too know beyond doubt, it is up to a journalist to present the evidence and offer an interpretation of what it means. Simply because the story is hard to believe does not mean he violated journalistic standards.

    • If you think that passing along hearsay someone with an axe to grind supposedly heard from a dead person and that isn't corroborated by anyone doesn't violate journalistic standards, I'm not even going to bother with you.

    • Mark, you're pointing out a serious flaw in what I wrote above: in the effort to try and make sense of what Chass wrote, I made it seem as if Chass' piece made sense. In the effort to figure out whether Chass' piece was responsible, I made the piece seem more responsible than what it was.

      That's a problem.

      What Chass did in this piece (and in his similar piece on Stan Musial) is to extensively quote from an interview with a single primary source, then BRIEFLY mention a couple of other sources that disagree with the primary source, then conclude that the primary source is telling the truth. We are left with the impression that, at best, the contradicting sources are addressing only a tiny part of the much greater story provided by the primary source. (In the Ueberroth piece, Chass all but says that Ueberroth is lying.)

      Is this a violation of journalistic standards? I don't hold myself out as an expert on the ethics of journalism. If I have a crazy conversation with an historic baseball figure, I suppose I'm free to publish it. But if the conversation accuses a second historic figure of wrongful conduct, I'm going to hesitate. If the accusation in question was made not by the figure I'm interviewing, but by a third party who is no longer living, I'm going to back away.

      Yes, Chass laid out enough information in his story so that I could debunk it. It took me hours of research and more than a little bit of typing, but I think I was able to prove that Chass ran with a story from a single uncorroborated source (now dead), and that the story makes no sense on its face. Perhaps Chass did not say that his story was gospel truth, but he did not clearly label it as opinion.

      I think yours is a thoughtful comment. Thumbs up. I think the impression you got from my piece is, unfortunately, better than what Chass deserved. But you got it from my piece. So I think yours is a good piece of criticism of what I wrote.

  4. I've posted some negative feedback on these Chass posts previously but I did find this one interesting.

  5. I keep swearing that i won't read anymore Murray Chass articles on IATMS because it seems like overkill…but then i do of course…and i laugh.

  6. To be clear, though I find it amusing how everyone sends me links to Chass blog posts, I've only vowed to ignore his sbaermetrics bashing stuff. I actually came across this one when a Chass-defender sent me a link to Tango's post.

  7. The only question I have at this point is, has Chass always been a hack? His coverage of collusion during the late eighties was pretty spot-on. He was among the first journalists to use that term, which turned out to be absolutely accurate, and covered the allegations and the ensuing legal battle with an impressive combination of sources. (You can peruse many of his articles in the NYT online archives.) For the next two decades, he was quick to point to instances where management was in danger of violating the anti-collusive language of the post-collusion CBA, showing the extent to which the fourth estate can be a check and balance. But, it's been a long, long time since Chass has done anything but self-inflated, thoughtless ranting. As he looks more and more like an object for parody and derision, I can't help but wonder, how did he get to this point? How does one keep one's self from falling victim to the same intellectual decay?

    • Hippeaux, I think the general consensus is that Chass was once one of the best baseball writers out there. I think that the memory of who Chass used to be helps fuel much of the criticism he receives now: he used to be better, so we're disappointed. Or: he's trading on his old reputation to get people to take seriously the hack stuff he's writing now.

      How do the rest of us avoid what's happened to Chass? I don't know. Personally, I hang out here at IIATMS with the younger folk, and hope that their influence will slow my decay. FWIW, some days this plan seems to work better than others.

    • I think it's probably the lack of attention, though to some extent I suspect Chass has always been something of a troll at heart.

  8. Long time Red Sox fan here who enjoys reading this board and can hopefully provide some insight.

    During the 1996 negotiations Red Sox GM Dan Duquette publicly stated that he wanted Clemens to spend "the twilight of his career" in Boston and offered a two year deal worth $5 M a season. Clemens wanted to stay, and his agent countered by asking for three years at $5 M a season. The two sides were working on the conditions where the third year would automatically kick in if Clemens started a certain number of games. The deal was close to being done.

    Then the Blue Jays kicked in the door with a five year deal at $8 M a season. I remember seeing a press conference with a seemingly stunned Duquette who was almost at a loss for words. Boxed in by his claims that Clemens was in decline, there was nothing he could do but watch Clemens head over to Toronto.

    Having said all that, there may have been *something* to the story about what took place after the 1986 season, as Clemens and the Red Sox went through a pretty nasty and public salary dispute.

    • tommy, great comment! Yes, I pointed out that Clemens actually held out for a time during 1987 spring training. But I'm not sure that the Blue Jays were the only team that outbid the Red Sox in 1996 for Clemens' services. There were reports that both the Indians and Yankees had offered Clemens serious money – the Cleveland deal was reportedly a 4-year $28 million package. If Clemens was willing to pass up the Cleveland offer for fewer years and less money in Boston, this would tend to indicate that the relationship between Clemens and the Sox must have been pretty friendly at that point.

      In any event, my main point is that when Clemens had all these multi-million dollar offers to consider, the $350,000 he didn't earn in 1986 could not have troubled him much. Moreover, in hindsight he was probably grateful that back in 1986 he did NOT accept a multi-year deal at $1 million a year. He ultimately made a lot more money by having that particular offer yanked from the negotiating table.