Beers And A Game With Dan Epstein

Talking to the author of "Big Hair and Plastic Grass" and the new "Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ’76" about mustaches, swagger, owners and the indiscreet charm of Yasiel Puig.
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Baseball in the 1970s reflected life in the 1970s. It was tumultuous and half-psychotic and conflicted and angry and weird and extremely on drugs. Egocentric new-money owners, psychedelic pitchers and disco records exploding in the outfield and a team winning a World Series in a borough that was actively on fire: these are not outliers, but actual milestones in that decade’s baseball history.

Dan Epstein is an author, but also a spokesman and scholar of the sport during this groovy, extravagantly weird decade. Epstein’s book Big Hair and Plastic Grass is a chronological guide through the exploits on and off the diamond. On April 29, Epstein’s latest book Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ’76 hit bookstores. The book takes a deeper look at a year that was a turning point for baseball and the country. As the nation shed the demons of Vietnam and the Nixon-era in the spirit of Bicentennial patriotism, baseball adopted free agency and forever changed the game.

Earlier in April, I spoke with Dan while watching the Angels square off against the Athletics (and the conclusion of a game where the Phillies came back against the Braves only to lose it in dramatic and dramatically fan-crushing fashion). We drank a couple beers, and discussed his new book, the epic dullness of the Anaheim Angels and the importance of Mark “The Bird” Fidrych. This is a (much) condensed version of that conversation.

Congratulations on the book.

Thanks man, you dig it?

I loved it. I loved Big Hair and this one is great too. Lots of good stuff in ’76. And it’s kind of nice, because it really is a forgotten year in some ways.

Yeah, I think it’s a year that gets short-shrifted because the World Series was such a bummer, but in a way it was kind of appropriate too. It’s like, you think about so many films of the 1970s like they don’t end happily, they all end on this sort of dour, downbeat note. And the World Series of 1976 was kind of in the same vibe.

Baseball-wise, and culturally, Bad News Bears is a huge part of that year. How important was that movie for you, as a kid?

Huge. It’s still my favorite baseball film to this day, and I think in many ways it’s the perfect baseball film. I don’t know if I can even do justice to how important that film was for me, and literally the film comes out in late March of ’76. A couple weeks later, maybe even a week later, I’m invited to my friend Tim’s tenth birthday party. Me and a bunch of other fourth graders go. Tim’s parents are like these -- well, we lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan which is kind of this liberal bastion where you wouldn’t get fined more than ten bucks for smoking weed in public in the 1970s.

So my friend’s parents are kind of these post hippy types, they take us to the movie to see Bad News Bears in their tricked out conversion van which is completely carpeted on the inside. It’s like, jam like ten fourth graders into the back and we’re all getting rowdy. We go to see the Bad News Bears, I had no real idea what to expect and at that point I like baseball because I’m a boy and I’m supposed to like baseball, but I really didn’t know anything about it. I could probably rattle off the names of about ten Major Leaguers off the top of my head but I didn’t understand really how the game was played, or know the difference between a run and a home run.

But none of that mattered watching the Bad News Bears because I’m watching kids who are essentially the screen versions of me and my friends, a bunch of wise-ass foul-mouthed elementary schoolers who have all been brought up in the Nixon era, who are completely cynical, completely distrustful of authority, completely into just mouthing off. And so to see this on the screen was just mind-blowing. It was like “That’s us!”

Up until that moment I hadn’t even thought about playing baseball as part of Little League, or whatever, and seeing that I immediately not only wanted to play baseball, I wanted to find out everything about it. I completely related to that Ogilvie kid who couldn’t play but was all interested in the statistical end of things.

And now here you are with another book about baseball history.

I would not be here talking to you about this book if it wasn’t for the Bad News Bears.

I think the biggest baseball event in 1976 has got to be free agency.

Yes, and that is something that, as a kid, I didn’t understand at all and I don’t think I was even aware of going into the season all the owners’ threats to lock the players out of spring training and even the regular season if they didn’t capitulate. It was sort of like, as a kid, watching this all unfold the 1976 season ends and there’s a free agent draft, and it was just like, ‘Okay, it’s a free agent draft.’

I didn’t realize that this was the first ever free agent draft and the first time that players were able to really just kind of sell themselves, sell their wares for what the market would bear. The whole economic aspect of this was completely lost on me as a kid but going back you see that basically all the hyper-inflated salaries, the whole free agency insanity. That all starts in 1976.

For me, I can tell you when I got into baseball because I can remember the border of the Topps card. So, for me, ’87 and the wood paneling

Oh, yeah, nice design actually.

So I always grew up with free agency as just a regular thing, so it’s more interesting for me to read from this era where it was such a revolutionary idea. And these owners, they see the writing on the wall, but there’s also something you bring up in this book, that when it happened, the owners had the money to pay these guys. It was around.

It’s so indicative and so foreshadows everything that’s going to happen next in the ensuing decades when the Boston Red Sox spend the entire season, or almost the entire season, in this bitter drawn-out negotiations with Fred Lynn and Carlton Fisk. And also Rick Burleson, but Fisk and Lynn are two of their big stars and it’s just sort of this like, ‘Well, I don’t know, you’re holding out for this money but we’re not going to pay it to you.’ And then the free agent draft happens, they draft Bill Campbell, and basically back up a truck full of money to his door just like, Yeah sure take it all!

And the disconnect between what was happening with them and Lynn and Fisk and what happens with them and Campbell: there you go. From here on out, owners are going to dick around the players that they have on the team but they’re going to pay ridiculous amounts of money for guys that aren’t on their team.

Yeah, and it’s just the fact that the owners are talking about how “You’re going to bankrupt us” and all this stuff but then they’re more than willing to spend stupid money in all the wrong places.

Right, and I think it was Bill Veeck who, before all this goes down, suggests that the reserve clause’s real purpose is to protect the owners from themselves.

And then it’s also Bill Veeck who is kind of the first owner to get actually burned by free agency, right?

Which is so ironic because he’s the first owner to really -- I mean, he was out of baseball at the time that he was testifying on behalf of Curt Flood, but he was the first guy from the ownership class to go, you know, this is going to happen, and it’s a morally right thing for players to have that freedom, to have that sense of self-determination. And whether you like or not this is eventually going to go down.

And it’s very ironic that at the exact moment that Bill comes back into the game, the Messersmith-McNally decision is handed down which basically says, ‘Yep, the Reserve Clause is history and unsigned players can be free agents’ and Veeck was completely unprepared financially to deal with that eventuality.

I want to come back to the owners in a second, but I also wanted to let you know that somehow the Braves have hit a grand slam in this game we’re sort of watching. (Laughter) This game was, last inning it was 5-1, then it was 6-5, and now it’s 9-6. So, I keep waiting to switch over --

Can I switch over to that because the Angels are just like offensive to my eyes.

Yeah go ahead. You’re a Dodgers fan as well, right?

Well, I like the Dodgers, I don’t love them, and I like the A’s and don’t love them. I live about a mile from Dodger Stadium so I go to a lot of Dodgers games, and they were my first National League team as a kid. That later switched over to the Cubs when I moved to Chicago. But you know the Tigers were in town last week and me and my fiancee went and rooted for the Tigers both nights...

Good.

...But normally when I go to Dodger Stadium I root for the Dodgers. But yeah the Angels are just like -- do you know anything about guitars?

Yeah.

Okay, do you know what a Paul Reed Smith guitar is?

Oh yeah.

So the Angels are like the Paul Reed Smith of baseball teams. They’re, like, really expensive but they have no vibe whatsoever.

That’s hilarious. I hate PRS guitars. Always played by the worst guy.

Right, the fucking blues lawyers. They all gravitate toward the PRS, and they’re really well made and blah blah blah but I would never play one in a million years. And the Angels are just like they don’t know who they are, they keep changing where they’re from, changing their uniform colors. Going to games at the Big A is a just a drag.

It’s very Disney.

Disney folly out in centerfield, you’ve got these really uptight Tea Party ushers who try to, you know, I’ve been hassled at Angels games so many times because I have long hair. I mean, I remember getting hassled going to Disneyland with my mom and her hippy friends in like 1974 but it feels like that when you walk into [Edison Field] now.

To get back to the owners, it’s interesting to me, and maybe it’s because of the hindsight of having this time between when you’re looking back on someone like Steinbrenner or Ted Turner and kind of admiring them, which is weird to say, because I don’t know if I would’ve felt that way if was paying attention in 1976. But the owners on so many of these times are kind of like the stars in some way.

Yeah, although it’s interesting, because Bill Veeck coming back to the White Sox was obviously a big deal, and really, he was the main attraction. And then I remember, I moved to Chicago in late 1979, and just the fact that I was going to be able to go see White Sox games was really exciting to me chiefly because of Bill Veeck. He was a hero to me. And then you’ve got Ted Turner, who was definitely cut from a similar cloth, although clearly he had a lot more money and a lot more business sense than Bill Veeck did.

But it was the same thing where it was like, wow, this guy really wants to make things fun. And I guess I also spent a lot of summer, including part of the summer of ’76, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, which got all the Braves games on Turner’s station, so I felt like that was part of my experience as well, Ted Turner and the whole thing he was trying to do with the Braves. So I remember being really into that as a kid.

But at the same time, you’ve got sort of the dark side, which is Steinbrenner and Charlie Finley; you have all these guys like Calvin Griffith of the Twins who are just these old drunk racist white guys [that] the game is rapidly passing them by and they are completely refusing to deal with it, refusing to acknowledge it.

So in some ways, Steinbrenner is, although he’s Steinbrenner, he is a new breed. He’s a guy who’s willing to accept what’s about to happen to the game and he’s going in wallet first. He’s going to bring in Reggie, he’s going to bring in Don Gullett -- I mean, that didn’t work out so well -- but in his mind, it’s like, there was no question that he was going to jump in and do this free agency thing. Whereas a lot of the owners completely flat-out refused to participate.

Finley is such an interesting guy too, because on one hand he’s this cheapskate, and on the other he has the best baseball dynasty of the era.

And he’s also a visionary. He came up with Designated Hitter idea years before the American League ratified it, he was the first guy to put his team in really colorful uniforms because he sensed the importance of color TV, all kinds of stuff.

Those kind of owners don’t exist anymore, especially with Steinbrenner not being around anymore. I can’t think of a single MLB owner who is as much of a part of the clubhouse as seemed to be the case in the ‘70s.

No, I don’t think so either. I think a lot of that has to do with the corporatizing of the game. It’s like, the CEO isn’t going to come down and hang out in the mailroom. I mean, you get guys like -- what’s that toad that owns the Marlins?

Loria?

Yeah, it’s very much about him but he doesn’t really have any interaction with the players, like you’re talking about.

Looks like we’re finally done with this game, by the way.

Yep, 9-6. Well done, Braves.

So now we get the exciting Angels/A’s.

Sweet, well I’m definitely rooting for the A’s in this one.

I can see you being a big A’s fan. Now that you have these two books about baseball in the '70s, what is the quintessential ultimate '70s team?

Oh, the Mustache Gang A’s, no question. That was the greatest team of the ’70s. I mean, the Cincinnati Reds during their two World Series winning years, ’75 and ’76, were really incredibly impressive. But when you think of the A’s, not only did they win three straight World Series -- which was something that hadn’t been done since the Yankees in the ’50s -- but they won five straight division titles. And very nearly, in ’76, won a sixth. If Finley hadn’t traded away Reggie Jackson and Ken Holtzman he probably would’ve won it.

I don’t know if that’s something that on some level Finley didn’t want to see happen, he didn’t want to see the team win the division and go to the playoffs again and then all those guys walk. Because even into September he’s meddling with the team in ways that were clearly not productive for the team, trying to find someone to take Sal Bando off his hands and things like that. I mean, I’m not an A’s fan per se, but I own a Catfish Hunter throwback jersey in the gold. You’ve just gotta respect what they did.

Pujols hit a home run here.

Yeah, just saw that.

I don’t know, I keep thinking he’s done, but talk about a guy that has his Cardinals juju going.

Yeah, maybe he is actually healthy this year, he looked terrible last year.

I still think he’s 40-something.

Oh definitely, I was just about to say, that was a pretty impressive bomb for a 45 year old man.

This Angels team. They’ve spent so much money, yet managed to not excite me at all. Even Trout, who I like watching, I’m not interested in.

Totally. Well, he’s really white bread too. You know, in L.A. we’ve got Yasiel Puig who, for all his faults, is also an incredibly exciting player to watch, but he’s got some flavor. He’s got style. He’s got idiosyncrasies. But I would way rather watch Puig on any given night than Trout.

I would say Puig would fit right in with the ’70s.

I completely agree, and this is something I get into with a lot of my friends and fellow fans who really despise Puig. [They’re] like “he doesn’t play the game right” and I’m like you loved Bernie Carbo in the ’70s but you don’t like Yasiel Puig because he doesn’t play the game right. It’s like, what am I missing here?

That whole argument never made sense to me because what they’re essentially asking for are baseball robots. And this game could be very much mechanical like that. I mean, I’ve always had a problem with  Jeter -- personal, really -- because I think he’s kind of boring in that same way. Not that I don’t know he’s good, obviously I know he’s great as a player, but it’s just so dull and corporate to me.

Yeah, and I think there’s way too much of that in game already. If a player wants to flip his bat what the fuck is the big deal? At the same time, we can appreciate flamboyance in players when it’s thirty or forty years ago but somehow seeing a flamboyant player in front of us is abhorrent, and I don’t get that.

Do you think baseball is getting more exciting? More boring?

Definitely more boring. And I think the new replay business just adds to that. Like, okay, here comes the manager but he’s not going to scream at the umpire because he just wants to nicely ask for a replay and then the umpires go off the field and they confer and something happens or something doesn’t but then we’re back to the game.

I do like this fact, though: somehow replay happened in that Red Sox/Yankees game -- I didn’t see this but I read about it and heard a lot about it -- and the Red Sox manager got tossed anyway. I mean, that gives me hope.

It does to me too.

At this point, Yoenis Cespedes comes up to bat for the A’s.

Oh, Cespedes. Here’s another guy.

I like him a lot.

I really feel like the Latin players are the ones bringing the joy of playing baseball to the game right now. That might be off, but...

No, I think it’s spot on. I think it’s the same with Puig but those are the guys who are also provoking all the outrage of “they’re not playing the game right” or “they’re too flamboyant.” I really feel like there’s an underlying racist thing to all that.

I agree. And what I think is really interesting about your books is the idea that people of that generation, that are complaining about these guys, I’m like ‘were you watching baseball in the 1970s?’ There’s a disconnect between what they’re complaining about -- a bat flip -- when this guy was literally on LSD while he was pitching.

As if responding to the conversation, Cespedes hits a home run

Here we go!

This was something I had to bring up: Fidrych. Because to me he might be the star of this book and this is his breakout season. I almost got emotional reading the chapter where it talks about his Monday Night Baseball game.

Awesome. I’m glad that came across because I still tear up every time I watch that.

We can talk about him for a while because it’s so unique what he did. Obviously with the talking to the ball and the fixing-the-mound thing, but any interview with him, it’s almost like he came from another planet. He can’t believe what’s happening and he’s just excited about everything.

We heard about him in Michigan first, for obvious reasons, but he didn’t even start a game until middle of May, so it wasn’t like it was all Fidrych all the time from April until October, it was really a slow build thing.

It wasn’t really until early June that he was really day-to-day conversation in Michigan, and it wasn’t until that Monday night that he becomes this national phenomenon. But again, it was that sort of thing where the Bad News Bears were me and my friends, we looked out at Fidrych and really he was one of us as well. He was as excited to be out there as we were excited to be out on a Little League diamond. Just like, it’s a beautiful day for a game and this is the absolute coolest thing we could possibly be doing right now.

You can’t help but play “what if” with him, but the way his career worked out seems perfect. It almost seems perfect that it was short.

Right, like anything else would’ve been a disappointment somehow.

Like he would’ve gotten cynical.

Although he spent four more year trying to make back to the Big Leagues full time, pitched in the minors thereafter, and by all accounts he was still the same guy until the day he died. You know, went back to the farm, was not bitter about his experience, not raging against the cruel hand of the baseball gods, was just happy he’d had the chance and now was going to go back and be a pig farmer.

Going back to that Monday night game -- which was just the perfect way for him to get national exposure because he wound up having a great game, and against the Yankees -- as great as that was, the interview after the game is just perfect.

And that’s really the part that tears me up actually, when he comes out and the crowd reaction is so... I mean, Tigers Stadium was the first ballpark I ever saw a Major League game in and I can still remember how intimate it felt. You could practically taste the lead paint, it was just so old and smelled like cigar smoke and stale hot dogs, but it just had such a great vibe. The way that it rocked when people went nuts and the way it rocked when Fidrych came out of the dugout for his curtain call, the joy radiating off of him, the joy radiating off the people in the stands. It’s all just too much.

But the best part is the “Hell yeah!” thing.

Right! The first thing Mark Fidrych says on national television is: “Hell yeah!” I think I write about it later in the book that one of the networks wanted to actually mic him up for a game where he’s sitting on the bench just because by August anything involving “The Bird” was such a big deal. They wanted to say, “We have Mark ‘The Bird’ Fidrych talking on a bench.” And Ralph Houk, the Tigers manager, was very familiar with the way that Mark Fidrych expressed himself when he was on the bench and immediately put the kibosh on that idea.

I really have enjoyed these books a lot. Big Hair and Plastic Grass is a constant Christmas gift for my baseball fan friends.

Another interview asked me recently if it was intentional that I’d left all these advanced stats out of the book. That’s not what this book is about. This book is about trying to take you back in time; this is a time machine. Nobody was even talking about on-base percentage in 1976.

I feel like I let that slip through a couple times, like I actually mention on-base percentage when I shouldn’t have. Maybe they were talking about Slugging Percentage, but they weren’t talking about WHIP, they certainly weren’t talking about BABIP. I’m more interested in painting the experience of what it was like to be following that season at that time. And yeah, you can analyze 1976 from a sabermetric standpoint and I’m sure there’s some interesting stuff that comes up.

But nobody minded that Larry Bowa was batting second for the Philadelphia Phillies even those he had a .283 on-base percentage, because that’s what you did w/ slap-hitting shortstops. You put them in the second position. And Bill Buckner for the Dodgers who had like the .313 average and the .323 on-base percentage -- that’s what they did with guys like that, you put them in the two hole. I find that stuff extremely interesting but it’s just not part of the conversation in 1976.

It’s interesting to me with the stats, there are people that are hyper-in-love with it, and then there are people that want to pretend it just doesn’t exist. I feel like I’m in between. I don’t want to spend the time calculating it or figuring it out, but it makes a lot of sense, I’m glad it’s out there, why wouldn’t you want it?

I’m with you, and you look back at the various WAR statistics for 1976 and if you’re going by WAR alone, Mark Fidrych should’ve not only won the Cy Young and the Rookie of the Year, he should’ve been AL Most Valuable Player. So it’s interesting to see from that standpoint, but there was no way in hell Mark Fidrych was going to win Most Valuable Player in 1976, because he played for this lousy team.

Was that from the era where you had to be on a contender to be considered?

Pretty much, or just so dominant with your basic stats that not being with a contender would not matter. So in ’76 Thurmon Munson wins the AL MVP, and if we’re talking in terms of WAR he’s not even number five. But he was also captain of the Yankees, he was an excellent defender, he was great with the pitching staff, he was a great hitter. So from that standpoint it certainly made sense at the time, and no one was arguing. There was no Trout/Cabrera thing in 1976.

So yeah, I dig it all. What I don’t like is this sort of “prove you’re not a communist thing” where it’s like “you better have some advanced stats in your book or you’re a fuckin’ dinosaur.” And fuck that.

Just go on Baseball Reference, they’ve got everything you need.

Right, exactly, if you want to crunch the numbers, if you want to do comparative stats, whatever, those resources are out there for you. I’m here to put 1976 in a contextual perspective, to tell the stories, to celebrate the really cool individuals who were involved and all the oddball shit that went down that season. And if you can’t get into it from that angle, well, then this is the wrong book for you.

You know one thing I thought about as I was reading the playoff chapters -- there seemed to be a ton of errors in those playoff games. A huge amount.

Yeah. Well, I think some of it, in the case of the Yankees they’re really not used to playing on artificial turf and the Royals, I believe, were the only AL team in 1976 to play on artificial turf.

But there were all kinds of errors in the Phillies/Reds series and I think a lot of that was due to condition of the turf. If you go back and watch videos of that playoff series, especially in Veterans Stadium, I mean that turf looks like dead man’s skin. It’s discolored, it’s gray, it’s patchy. And this is what they were playing on. There’s one moment -- I think it’s in Game 3 of the NLCS -- where somebody hits a ball out to centerfield and it hits the turf and basically bounces back towards second base, just this completely improbable pool hall hop. Something like that would’ve never happened on natural turf but on artificial turf it was pretty much anything goes.

It is a weird thing to think about. How people got used to playing on that, or then switching over to a place that doesn’t have that?

I think the Royals and Phillies were kind of classic astroturf teams that were filled with guys who were fast, line drive hitters, good fielders for the most part. In “Big Hair and Plastic Grass” I talk about how the 1980 World Series is almost poetic, it’s like the end of this era. Two classic Astroturf teams, the Royals and the Phillies, facing off against each other in the all-Astroturf World Series.


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