MY TURN: Judge knows the score by all pitching accounts

By Tom Kirvan

Legal News

Judge Mark Plawecki, of the 20th District Court in Dearborn Heights, regularly dispenses various nuggets of wit and wisdom in this Legal News space. Such legal and political commentary is part of the charm of his "Confessions of a Condor" column, which has appeared in this paper since late 2000.

The original heading for his column was "Spartacus," a nifty journalistic jab at a state appellate judge who wrote op-ed pieces "From the Right," including a justification for the U.S. Supreme Court intervening in the Bush-Gore election brouhaha of 2000.

"The idea of Spartacus, who led a slave uprising against ancient Rome, was that I'd be writing 'from below,' since as a district judge I knew I could be overruled by a higher court," Judge Plawecki explained in a speech to the Detroit Catholic Central Shamrock Bar Association last year.

Then, like all good columnists, Judge Plawecki decided it was time to write a book, to put "Spartacus" on the shelf until his literary project was completed some four years down the road. When he returned to regular column writing, he did so under a different heading in 2009.

The "Confessions of a Condor" title traces its roots, or better yet "wings," to the California Condor, "a rare bird that lives mainly in captivity (much like a judge with three teenage daughters)," he indicated. "Condors are vultures who feast on dead animals, much as I feast on and borrow the ideas of great minds in history and tradition, which Chesterton calls 'democracy of the dead,'" Judge Plawecki said.

His knack for intriguing titles was even more evident with the release of his first book, a baseball gem that delved deeply into the mystery of "How Could You Trade Billy Pierce?" Its subtitle offers a bit of an explanation for those grasping at "Billy Pierce" straws: "Essays and Analyses of MLB's Best Pitchers."

But this is not just another baseball book destined to collect dust on distant shelves in Dad's rec room. It is a work of baseball art that has at times consumed the man who is an unabashed fan of the national pastime.

"I've always been a statistical geek when it comes to baseball," Plawecki said when I interviewed him in the spring of 2007 for a story on his book. "The year the Tigers won the pennant and the World Series, 1968, really contributed to my baseball fanaticism. To some degree, everyone around Detroit that year really got caught up in 'Tiger fever.' It was a special year, which came to be known as the 'Year of the Pitcher.'"

Or, as one baseball pundit labeled it, "The Year of the Infield Pop-up."

In other words, runs were in short supply. Star hurlers such as Bob Gibson, Luis Tiant, Don Drysdale, Dave McNally, Dean Chance, Sam McDowell, Juan Marichal, Tom Seaver, and Ferguson Jenkins took turns on center stage that year, baffling American and National League batters with their mound magic.

There even was room on the mound that year for "The Maestro," an accomplished organist who would become the first pitcher in more than three decades to win 30 games. His name, of course, was Denny McClain, and Plawecki will never be elected president of his fan club.

"Both major leagues' ERAs were below 3.00 for the only time since the Kaiser ruled Germany," Plawecki wrote in the "1968 Zenith" chapter of his book. "Boston's Carl Yastrzemski, at .301, spared the AL the ignominy of being the only league to not have a .300 hitter. Detroit's Denny McLain not only 'won' 31 games, but also a player poll as the year's outstanding slabman, proving that several lapses of judgment are not the sole domain of baseball scribes."

It was not the only well-deserved dig the former Tiger wonder-boy receives in the book by Plawecki, who obviously does not look kindly on McLain's many brushes with the law since retiring from baseball.

But back to the central matter at hand, a judge and his somewhat unexplainable "love" in his life.

"Former New York Giant catcher West Westrum once observed of baseball, as the fans see it: 'It's like church. Many attend but few understand,'" wrote Plawecki in the preface to his book.

"As a boy, I memorized seemingly every baseball statistic imaginable. I have since retained the vast majority of these numbers, and added not a few more, but know not whether this 'talent' suggests a blessing or a curse," said Plawecki, who earned his bachelor's degree from Michigan State University in 1983. "Yes, it has given me a greater feel for the game I treasure, yet a chilling thought recurs that an inordinate number of brain cells have been misdirected on a trivial pursuit better elsewhere spent."

The book, he explained, is about Major League pitchers, and introduces a "new method for ranking their performances. It is known as the PAPA, as in the "Park Adjusted Pitching Average."

The formula, which Plawecki has devised, employs three components: a run prevention average (RPA), which is basically a modified earned run average; an innings pitched average (IPA); and a park factor (PF). Plawecki assures readers that the formula is "somewhat less complicated" than Einstein's Theory of Relativity.

His late father, John, may have provided the inspiration for the book, "telling me how good such pitchers as (Tiger legends) Schoolboy Rowe and Hal Newhouser were in comparison to pitchers from my era," said Plawecki, who was first elected to the bench in 1994.

"It really gave me some incentive to come up with a way to 'level the playing field' when comparing pitchers from different eras," he said.

So, Judge Plawecki, how does Tiger star Justin Verlander rate?

In his Cy Young and MVP award winning year of 2011, Verlander had a .387 PAPA, far better than Dodger pitcher Clayton Kershaw (.459), the Cy Young choice in the National League, according to Plawecki.

"A .387 PAPA puts him 55th best since 1901 . . . so roughly, on average, a pitcher will have a better season every other year," Plawecki said of Verlander's 2011 standout campaign. "Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, and Pedro Martinez have a combined 12 seasons better than JV's . . . some considerably better."

As for Verlander this season, "I look for him, at age 29, to have a PAPA somewhere around .450," Plawecki predicted. "He's at his peak, and the great ones typically maintain their best form for two to three years before a noticeable drop off. Of course, he may 'just' be a great pitcher this year, which will be good enough to help get the Tigers to the World Series, if other players' projections hold true."

As a lifelong Tiger fan, I can live with that, just as I can buy the judge's explanation about the origin of the title to his book.

The title, according to Plawecki, was the byproduct of a "temporary severe lapse in judgment" when the author was a mere 10-year-old. It was then that he traded his brother's 1959 Sporting News All-Star Billy Pierce baseball card for a 1961 Topps version of Yankee infielder Bobby Richardson. The exchange didn't go over well with big brother, prompting the incredulous query of 'How could you trade Pierce for Richardson?'"

It's a question, four decades later, that still boggles the baseball mind and for which "no intelligent excuse can as yet be proffered," Plawecki admitted.

Sounds like a true confession by the Condor.

Published: Fri, Mar 16, 2012