Sweet Parity?

March 30, 2012

In preparing my B.A.B.E.S. picks for this year, I looked back at our selections from the past 2 years.  Interestingly, although there were 16 members participating in 2011, there were only 5 separate clubs picked as World Series champs and one of those was the Cubs (which obviously is a statistical outlier that must be disregarded).  Further, there were only 8 clubs in the NL picked for the play-offs (again, one of which was the Cubs) and only 9 AL Clubs.  That shows clearly that we did not believe there was much parity in the leagues.  STL was certainly a surprise World Series winner, but that was due more to their uninspired play for the first 5 months of the season. They were picked by 5 of us to at least be in the play-offs.  In 2010, there were only 3 clubs picked as World Series Champ among the 10 participants, and none of them were SFO (3 of us did pick the Giants to be in the play-offs).

Well, my guess is that in 2012 there will be more diversity in our picks for World Champion.  It is a certainty that the pool of potential winners will be deeper.  I say that first because there will now be 10 teams that actually make the play-offs and therefore be guaranteed a shot at the title, but secondly because in my view there are 10 teams, and perhaps more, that have a World Series caliber line-up.   I don’t think any of us would have said that last year, but with the movement of major stars and the rapid development of young players (particularly pitching staffs) several new teams have to be considered.

There are the usual suspects, of course –  in the AL you have NYY, BOS, DET, TBR, TEX (can you believe we now consider the Rangers to be a regular contender for the championship?) LAA (any team with Pujols has to be considered, and the Angels weren’t that far away before adding him).  In the NL, you have PHI, STL, SFO, MIL, COL, LAD, ATL and ARI (no one saw them coming last year but I’m guessing Kirk Gibson’s first team’s 96 wins was not a fluke).

I assume that some of you, like me, are also considering these clubs: MIA (new in name, uniform, ballpark, roster and manager, with two surprise titles in their history already), TOR (quietly building a contender even in the AL East – Wild Card #2?), MIN (surely last year’s disaster was an injury-caused fluke for this very successful franchise, and they have their old GM back), CIN (one year removed from the play-offs with added pitching depth, but the new closer Madsen is now out for the year).

On top of these real possibilities, there is bound to be a sleeper such as ARI last year.  WAS? (bright young stars and an experienced mgr); CLE? (very good for 120 games last year): CWS? (hurt by player departures, but is the absence of Ozzie addition by subtraction?) CHI? (just so that Robert and Tim know that I don’t really hate the Cubs and that I do believe that God can make ANYTHING happen, I’ll list them as a sleeper pick to break the curse in year 105.  If they do win it all this year, we’ll know with certainty that there is a God and that He has a very favorable opinion of Theo Epstein.

That’s 22 teams out of 30 (or 21 if you’re an agnostic and prefer to omit the Cubs).  I may have even left out one or two others that you guys are considering.  So it should be a really interesting year.  Let’s see if we can live up to the name Best American Baseball Experts and make some expert selections in the team races, even with such parity.  I will be back to you in a few days with some thoughts on the individual awards.

I have already received several entries. Everyone please get me your picks by April 5.  I’ll accept any changes up to that time, particularly if you want to change that CHI pick.  (Aren’t you NYY fans glad I now have someone else to pick on?)

Those of you in San Antonio mark your calendar for lunch on Thursday, 11:45am, at Acenar.

 

Remembering Rocky

March 20, 2012

Baseball players have been immortalized as the “Boys of Summer” ever since 1972 when Roger Kahn took the phrase from a Dylan Thomas poem and used it as the title of a book about his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers. Indeed, the thought of the Boys of Summer playing America’s Pastime arouses in us all memories of lazy summer days and nights at the ballpark where time seemed to stand still to the most wonderful effect.

Yet, for me baseball is much more evocative of Spring, a time when bright colors return to the Earth and we all long to be outdoors to experience the same rebirth. Isn’t that what happens each Spring in FL and AZ when the MLB teams clothed in Spring colors all play baseball outdoors on natural grass? Doesn’t each player contract Spring-fever amnesia and believe that his team can win the World Series this year no matter how badly they performed the previous year – or the previous 104 years? That optimism (“an inclination to put the most favorable construction upon actions and events to anticipate the best possible outcome” – Webster’s 9th), translates from the span of an entire season down to each individual pitch. In a baseball instant, the 1.4 seconds it takes most big-league pitchers to deliver a pitch to the plate, a person’s life can change forever. (See David Freese as the most recent example). A true baseball fan always believes that such a life-changing instant can occur on any pitch, and probably will on the very next one. With the coming of Spring, we all anticipate that catharsis in a positive expectation of success and victory, not in negative fear of failure or defeat.

Today is the first day of Spring, 2012 – the first Spring since 1944 that my friend Rocky Walker is not on the Earth and the first Spring since 2006 that I will not have him in the office to talk baseball with and to see in his youthful, optimistic eyes the belief that the next pitch in life is going to result in something special and memorable.

For those of you who didn’t know Rocky, he was a distinguished litigation attorney for 37 years, much of which was spent as a partner at JW and as head of the firm’s litigation practice. He was born in Bradenton, FL and raised in Sarasota, and I’m sure that had something to do with his love of baseball and Spring. He also had the rare pleasure of having a nephew actually become a major league pitcher (Tyler Walker, middle reliever, 286 appearances), and that made Rocky even more fun to talk to since he had inside news from The Show. But what made Rocky so special to me was not what he knew about my favorite game, but the way he reminded me of it with the Spring Training optimism that he seemed to exude every day that I worked with him.

Although I knew him previously as a Christian brother and fellow parish-member, I only really got to know Rocky in the five years since I came to JW. For almost four of those years he battled his disease, but through all the stages of his treatment and the ups and down of his hoped-for recovery, he never acted like it was anything but a great day. I almost expected the first words out of his mouth any morning to be “let’s play two!” If he were reading this right now, I’m sure he would tell me to quote Lou Gehrig: “I may have got a bad break, but today I feel like the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” I admired this quality in him so much, but more importantly, I was blessed by it. I never left a conversation with Rocky feeling worse than when I started it. Even when I would go to his office intending to cheer him up, I always came away having been cheered myself. This recognition today makes me feel like a very blessed man to have had even five Spring Trainings with Rocky as my teammate.

A few weeks ago, I wrote to you that our group needed a name that expressed who we are – and I didn’t mean just a bunch of guys who love baseball and want to be thought of as experts in the field. I wanted a name that was clever, but substantive – one that expressed the significance that baseball plays in our lives and, we feel, in the life of our nation.  I’ll admit that what we came up with, the Best American Baseball Experts Society, falls a bit short of those goals, but I also stated my hope that the name might one day evolve into an iconic nickname like Oscar or Tony or Grammy.  In his usual polite fashion, Rocky never let on whether he was for or against my suggestion that we call ourselves the B.A.B.E.S., even though as one of the 3 founding members of the group – and the recent recipient of the ACC’s ethical Life Award – his opinion would have demanded serious consideration.

Anyway, I understand now that there is a distinction between the awards that those nicknames represent and the organizations that bestow them. I realized that we can have an official name for our group and a separate name for our annual award. So, as your Commissioner, I am honored to announce that the winner of each year’s Best American Baseball Experts Society competition will now receive the James L. Walker Award, to become known affectionately as the “Rocky.” Since we won’t be declaring a winner until November, we have plenty of time to have the trophy commissioned. But whatever form it takes, I know that the “Rocky” will be graceful and hopeful and inspiring, just like its namesake.

Although I would much prefer that Rocky was still with us in person – and that I could beat him in this year’s competition – whichever one of us gets to place this award on his mantle in November will be in very good company, indeed.  I am pleased that we can remember Rocky in this way and at the same time honor ourselves by identifying with the legacy of integrity and optimism that he displayed all the time that we knew him.

The Best American Baseball Experts Society

March 15, 2012

 

Well, as you can see, I have settled on a name for our collective. Like all names, it could be improved upon – shortened for example. But as a couple of you expressed concerns about using its acronym (sexist and/or prudish Yankee haters that your are), I have decided to stick with the name but will refrain for now from using the acronym.

I am hopeful that, in time, all of you will become comfortable at least with the designation B.A.B.E.S., a slight change from my original suggestion of BABES.  The use of periods between the initials creates some distinction between us, the Bambino and female All-Stars, which were the main objections. It also reminds me of one of my favorite T.V. series from my childhood – The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

I will never be as cool as Napoleon Solo (or as good a ballplayer as Napoleon “Nap” Lajoie), but I can still aspire to be the Best American Baseball Expert. And even if I never achieve that goal – not even for one year – I can at least be remembered as the first Commissioner of the Best American Baseball Experts Society – founded on Opening Day, 2008, by Steve J., Rocky W. and me over lunch at the Ruta Maya Coffee House in a run down building on the banks of the San Antonio River. The restaurant is now as defunct as the Seattle Pilots  (it should have served Starbucks), but the Best American Baseball Experts Society lives on and has grown to over 20 members.

Anyway, we can always change the name in the future because, as I said, even great names can be improved upon. Just like great GAMES can always be improved upon, even the greatest game ever, which brings me to the biggest news of this Spring Training  – the addition of a second Wild Card team.  That’s right – a 3rd place finisher in the AL East could still make the play-offs and even win the World Series!  “Say it ain’t so, Bud!”  (So now you only have to leave one of these five teams out of the play-offs:  TEX, LAA, NYY, BOS or TBR, but it’s still a challenge to select which one, right?)

I am curious to hear how all of you Society members feel about that. Actuallly, I am all for it. With a one-game play-off in each league between the two wild card teams, the post-season will actually start with the equivalent of two game 7’s!  Remember the incredible events of the last day of last year’s regular season?  Think of that excitement on the first day of the playoffs every year. Also, this format gives the division winners a distinct advantage in lining up their rotations for the playoffs, which should be the reward for success over the 162 game season.   Due to the last minute agreement on adding the second wild card team, there will be some odd scheduling in the post-season this year, with the winningest team actually starting the play-offs with two games on the road against the wild-card winner.  Nevertheles, I still like the concept. I’m sure they will tweak it again next year when they have the opportunity to make the play-off schedule at the same time as the regular season schedule. In baseball, you actually can increase the level of perfection.

As proof of that statement, take note that the addition of the second wild card team will increase a perfect score in our contest from 108 to 114. So once more, for you new members of the Society, here is the scoring system:

– 3 pts for the correct selection of each of the 3 division winners and each of the two wild card teams in each league. (Possible 30 points) (one point will be awarded for the selection of a division winner that qualifies for the wild card, and vice versa)

– 6 points for the correct selection of each League Champion (possible 12 points)

– 12 points for the correct selection of the World Series Champion

– 10 points each for the correct selection of the MVP, Cy Young and Batting Title winner in each league (possible 60 points).

Total 114 points.  In our 3 year history, no one has yet reached 50 points.  Lots of room for improvement even among the Best American Baseball Experts.

With 3 weeks to go in Spring Training, it is time to get serious about your picks. Attached below is a spreadsheet for you to use in making your selections. Please try to return them to me by April 4.

For those of you in San Antonio, we will have our traditional Opening Day selection luncheon at Acenar, 11:45 am, April 5, to review our picks and watch ESPN’s coverage of the Opening Day games.  Almost time to Play Ball!