Fields of Change – 2019

December 31, 2018;

Alamodome sunset.jpg

New Year’s Eve greetings from the new world headquarters of The Best American Baseball Experts Society, which also happens to be my new homestead in downtown San Antonio.

After 23 years in the family home in the suburbs, Mrs. Commissioner and I moved to town.  We traded our low pastoral view of a golf course for a high, electric view of the city.  We look out at the Tower of the Americas which celebrated its 50th Anniversary this year, having been built as the centerpiece of San Antonio’s Hemisfair held in 1968.  We also look down on the Alamodome which is half the Tower’s age, having opened in 1993, but which is effectively much older for its intended purpose.  Both structures are surrounded by the renaissance in downtown San Antonio and we are very happy to be in the middle of it – well, actually above the middle of it, on the 25th floor of  a hotel/condo complex.

Alas, there is no MLB ballpark in view, although when it opened the Alamodome was billed as a multi-sport facility that raised the city’s hopes of obtaining a NFL or MLB franchise, perhaps even both.  But apart from one NFL season with the Saints after Hurricane Katrina and several Spring Training games with the Rangers, there have been no major league sports played in the building since the NBA’s Spurs left in 2002 for their own home, AT&T Center (just slightly out of my view around the eastern corner of our building).  Sadly, with the current demand for single-purpose arenas the Alamodome is now  considered unsuitable for any major league sport.

Whether it is for a MLB or NFL team, the city will have to build a new facility to attract one.  Most of our city leaders have rightly decided that public financing is needed in many other areas first.  This change in civic opinions is causing difficulty for franchises in Oakland, Tampa and even Phoenix.  And though we have some very wealthy business persons here, none has taken it upon himself or herself to fund a stadium construction project to attract a team, despite some prodding from me.  Of course we all know that, in the modern world of professional sports arenas, if you do not build it they won’t come.

There is some talk of the local minor league team owner building a downtown stadium for his AAA franchise on a tract I can see directly out of my new bedroom window.  Although I would prefer it to be a MLB stadium, I have been dreaming of such a view of any ball park since my pilgrimage to the Field of Dreams in Iowa with my son, Jack, in 2015 (note Ray Kinsella’s upstairs bedroom bay window in the left background).

Field house

But much has changed in the world in just three years, starting with Jack…

Jack NYC.jpg

as well as our address and, of course, the political climate.  2018 is a very different time, even from 2015.  The passage of just three years can obviously bring about a lot of change, even in our beloved and “timeless” game of baseball, which is not as unchanging as we like to think.

Just two months after Jack and I had a catch at the Field of Dreams, the Kansas City Royals won the 2015 World Series.  This year KCR won only 58 games and finished 33 games behind the Indians in the AL Central.  The Royals went almost 30 years without making the post-season and now are so bad again that it seems almost a dream that they appeared in back-to-back World Series in 2014-15, and were only one swing of the bat away from being the first repeat champion in almost 20 years. Remember, Salvadore Perez popped out as the potential winning run at the plate for the last out of Game 7 of the 2014 Series against the Giants.  And speaking of the Giants, that 2014 championship was their third in five years.  Since then the team is a collective 34 games under .500 and the front office just underwent a major overhaul.  Former GM Brian Sabean has three championship rings and no job. The fortunes of a franchise, its players and its executives can change very quickly.  And the process runs the other way as well. (See HOU, 2015-2017).

The game itself changes too, perhaps not quite as quickly, but sometimes dramatically.  We all know that strike outs are up and hits are down. In 2018 there were more strike outs than hits in a season for the first time ever (41,207/41,019).  (Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference.) This is a marked change from just 2015 – 42,106 hits vs. 37,446 k’s.  One thousand fewer hits and 4,000 more strike outs in just three years time is, indeed, a dramatic change at the plate.   Not surprisingly, the league batting average dropped from .254 in 2015 to .248 in 2018, the lowest since 1972.

But changes have occurred on the mound as well, and I am not just talking about TBR’s pioneering use of an “Opener” – a “relief” pitcher starting a game and then being relieved by a “starter” in the second or third inning.  For a game that has been around for over 150 years,  baseball has shown that there are still innovations to be made.  But of course these pitching innovations are all designed for one long-standing objective, to get twenty-seven outs while allowing fewer runs than your opponent.

In 2015, pitchers compiled a 3.95 ERA, while pitching only 104 complete games (out of 4,858 chances).  In 2018, the league ERA increased to 4.14 with only 42 complete games thrown in 4,862 chances.   So why did the league ERA go up while batting averages went down?  Two simple words: home run.  In 2015, pitchers gave up 4,909 long balls.  In 2018 that number increased to 5,585.  Also, walks increased from 14,073 in 2015, to 15,686 in 2018.  So, in 2015, a plate appearance resulted in a walk, strike out or home run 30% of the time. In 2018 that percentage increased to almost 34%.  That is dramatic change at the plate and on the mound in just three years.

And the change has extended on past the mound into the infield and outfield.  There have always been walks and strike outs and home runs in MLB, if not in these numbers, and probably there have always been some shifts in defensive alignments, but definitely not like this.  There were approximately 14,000 defensive shifts in 2014 (I couldn’t find an actual stat for 2014 or even any figures for 2015).  This number increased to over 31,000 in 2018.  In 2012, the total number of shifts was estimated at fewer than 3,000.  That is a ten-fold increase in just six seasons!  Yes, dramatic change has happened in the field, literally.

But wait, there’s more!  The changes are even occurring in the stands.  Overall fan attendance in 2018 was down 4% from 2017, totaling fewer than 70 million for the first time in fifteen years.  That is still a lot of tickets sold, and fans clearly still feel deeply about America’s past time.  (I had some thoughts about this back in 2012: https://babesbaseball.wordpress.com/2012/11/05/the-only-real-game-in-the-world-i-think-is-baseball-babe-ruth/.)  But when your customer base is declining, and by more than just a blip, attention should be paid.  There are many possible reasons – weather, smaller parks, ticket prices, length of games, fewer balls in play, tanking teams, changing millennial attitudes, even a change in ticket sales reporting by MIA (a good abbreviation for Jeffrey Loria, don’t you think?).  But whatever the cause, the interesting, or even important question is what is MLB going to do about it, if anything?

Commissioner Rob Manfred has encountered much opposition with proposals for dramatic on-field changes such as a pitch clock, the banning of defensive shifts, and perhaps even an electronic umpire to call balls and strikes.  Even his little changes, like limiting mound visits and stepping out at the plate to improve pace-of-play have raised some eye-brows among purists for its impact on the feel of the game.  But how does Manfred preserve traditional interest in the game while simultaneously creating new fans out of those not previously engaged?  No one can accuse the Commissioner of not thinking deeply about the long-term health of the game we all love, but we  can be concerned about him considering too much change for the game’s own good.

Which brings me to the biggest change in MLB in recent years, in my opinion, which has occurred during Manfred’s tenure as Commissioner – the state of the owner/player collective bargaining relationship.  It short, it has declined even more than fan attendance.  After an unprecedented period of collective bargaining peace – there has been no work stoppage since 1995 – the winds of conflict are increasing and a storm appears to be approaching with the expiration of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2021, just three years from now.

The first reason asserted by the players for the currently brewing unrest is not surprising.  Exhibit “A,” as we say in the practice of law, for the MLB Players Association would be a chart showing that in 2018 the average MLB salary declined for the first time in the past fourteen years and for only the fourth time in the past fifty (twice due to strikes).  You don’t have to be an economist to understand that falling wages creates labor unrest. But of course, there is another side to this story – the owner’s side.  Commissioner Manfred, an experienced labor lawyer and negotiator would counter on behalf of the owners (despite what Bowie Kuhn argued in his memoir, the Commissioner is clearly not a neutral party in labor disputes) with the his own chart showing the average MLB salary in 2018 was over $4 million, and that the decline on average was only $1,436.  That is 3/100ths of 1%!  How can that be a cause for concern?

I have written on the subject of MLB collective bargaining before and concluded that the personalities sitting at the bargaining table are as important as the issues presented on it. https://babesbaseball.wordpress.com/2012/12/13/love-your-enemies-part-2-marvin-miller-and-bud-selig/.  I know this to be true from over fifty years of following MLB on and off the field, as well as from my own experience of thirty-five years at the financial bargaining table.  Even if mine has not been a collective bargaining table, the first issue is still always about money.

If the first MLBPA Executive Director, Marvin Miller, were alive today he would counter Manfred’s counter-arguments with the fact that MLB revenue topped $10 billion in 2017 and 2018, and that franchise values continue to rise such that even the lowly Marlins, with a true attendance average of barely 10,000 fans/game in 2016, still sold for $1.2 billion in 2017. Loria bought the Miami team for $158 million in 2002.  Sports franchise values, even in small markets, have risen sharply with lucrative media deals and revenue sharing.     Even operating deficits can be managed with the now universally accepted Moneyball approach and the rapidly growing strategy of ridding your roster of nearly all veterans to improve draft choices and lower payroll while rebuilding (See HOU, 2011-14.)  The sharp decline in the number of long-term player contracts and the developing decline in big-name free agent signings would incense Miller and lead his successor, Donald Fehr, to allege collusion among the owners.  Both of them would insist that a player strike is the only way to reverse what they perceive to be unacceptable player “losses.”  Of course, Miller and Fehr were both motivated by what they viewed as unreasonable (or corrupt) owner leadership such as Busch, Finley, Veeck and Steinbrenner,  as well as biased and ineffective (at best) Commissioners such as Kuhn, Ueberroth, Vincent and Bud Selig.

After unprecedented and real losses on both sides, Selig and Fehr finally reached an understanding, as did the players and the owners, in the Spring of 1995, ending the 1994 strike that canceled the World Series.  The twenty-three years of apparent peace and unquestioned prosperity for both labor and ownership since that time, as well as the expected relative peace and prosperity that will continue in years 24-26 before the current CBA expires, ought to ensure that both sides will do almost anything to avoid another strike.  However, many professional observers are pessimistic, at best.

http://www.sportingnews.com/us/mlb/news/mlbpa-mlb-collective-bargaining-agreement-labor-issues-strike/zaqw0ed6hvp81ac5jtecgb6r3.

The role of Rob Manfred as Commissioner, an experienced labor negotiator who served as outside counsel to the league at the table opposite the MLBPA in 1995, cannot be overstated.  Despite his very likable personality and the “everyman” approach he brings to his position, Manfred is a corporate management attorney at heart, and sometimes he wears that heart on his sleeve.  I had the opportunity to ask him directly during an appearance here in San Antonio whether Marvin Miller should be in the baseball Hall of Fame.  His reaction, while restrained, was visceral (“relating to deep inward feelings rather than the intellect”).  Only after attempting to downplay Miller’s successes and enlarge his apparent mistakes could Manfred bring himself to admit that Miller’s impact on the game had been historic.  (Of course, the owners have never been able to muster even that level of acknowledgment.)  I took from that small personal interaction, as well his subsequent sparring with Tony Clark and even Mike Trout(!), that Manfred could have a very rough time getting another collective bargaining agreement done, and that is even without considering what directions he will get from the owners.  He just received a five-year contract extension to serve as Commissioner through 2024, so the owners clearly believe he is the man to represent them in the next round of collective bargaining. Mr. Manfred is certainly a very accomplished professional, but the perils for him in this process are obvious.  He will need to use all of his skills, but most of all, I believe, he will need a better relationship with the MLBPA leadership, which frankly is something of an unknown.

The 1995 labor resolution ushered in the very first Wild Card game in the MLB Post-Season.  And the “wild card” in the 2021 labor negotiations will undoubtedly be the MLBPA, starting with Tony Clark.  He was hired as the union’s director of player relations in 2010 and has been the Executive Director since 2013 following the death of the highly-regarded Michael Weiner.  Clark is the first former player to lead the union and he was active in player representation and union matters for much of his playing career.  However, that career started with his Rookie of the Year-winning season in 1996, a year after the last strike.  So he has never been involved  in a work-stoppage.  Neither, of course, has any of the current MLB players. No one knows whether Clark’s player background will strengthen the resolve for a strike, or even whether he and the current player representatives have the will to recommend one to strengthen the union’s bargaining position.  As a non-lawyer himself, one would expect Clark to rely heavily on an experienced legal counsel, and it appears he is preparing to do just that. Enter Bruce Meyer.

http://www.mlbplayers.com/ViewArticle.dbml?DB_OEM_ID=34000&ATCLID=211769538.

By hiring a Wall Street labor attorney who describes his reputation as that of  “a tough litigator who also knows how to make deals when necessary,” Clark and the MLBPA are obviously preparing for a fight.  Meyer served as a partner for many years in the prestigious NY firm of Weil Gotshal Manges, and immediately before joining the MLBPA he served as collective bargaining counsel for the NHL players association where he worked for the Executive Director Donald Fehr (yes, the same Don Fehr who lead the 1994 MLBPA strike and who directed the NHLPA during the 2012 owner’s lockout that canceled nearly half of the season.  Getting the picture?

Meyer may know how to make a deal “when necessary” but that compels the question of ‘whose necessity’?  Does that mean that the union will strike until its members can no longer endure the consequences, thus making a settlement necessary?  Or does that mean that the potentially catastrophic impact of any work stoppage on the already questionable health of the game will necessitate a resolution without a strike?   Only Mr. Meyer knows, or Mr. Clark and perhaps Xavier James, another Weil Gotshal attorney hired this Fall by the MLBPA.  Or perhaps none of these gentlemen know, because it is the union membership itself that will ultimately define the meaning of “necessity.”  And, of course, the current player representatives (a list of whom does not even appear on the MLBPA website) may not even be in that role, and probably won’t be, when the bargaining begins in 2020 or 2021.  Will current league representatives Andrew Miller and Daniel Murphy, both aged 33, even be in the league at that time?  And will one of the many developing stars in what has become a youngster-driven league emerge as the new voice of the players?  Further, baseball players are not generally known to be politically active or particularly astute businessmen.   Hence my belief that the professional administrators are the key to any reasonably amicable resolution.

Being of a similar age and having practiced in the same area of law (and geography) for their entire careers, I assume Meyer and Manfred know each other.  Let’s hope they do and that they like each other.  Either way, let’s hope that they don’t each spend the next two years marshaling weapons and drawing battle lines.  The players are already alleging free agency collusion and demanding new rules to prevent roster gutting which they say reduces high-paying contracts.  They also want the DH in the NL and the continuation of large numbers of September call-ups and the prohibition against a team leaving its future stars in the minors at the start of a season just to reduce service time and maintain control of the players for an extra year.  These are issues that strike at the owners’ fundamental control of the operation of the game – I use the term “strike” intentionally – and I don’t see the owners giving on many or perhaps any of them without a protracted fight.  That leads to a sobering view of the future.

One of my favorite baseball writers, Jayson Stark, recently observed: “They (Manfred and Clark) did a fine job of avoiding … popular phrases like ‘strike,’ ‘lockout’ and ‘NLRB….But if you spent a couple hours, as I did, listening to them talk about the state of the sport … you’d be terrified right now. Terrified that things are ‘bad and getting worse’.” Traditionally, that “never ends well” in this sport. (THEATHLETIC.com, 7/18).

We are now within an hour of 2019, a time when the financial fortunes of most Americans is improving under the presidency of Donald Trump, or at least their perception of the economy is positive ($4 million/year MLB players notwithstanding).

  https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2018/12/28/economic-outlook-2019-strengths-jobs-low-inflation/2417937002/.

But despite this fact most of Americans can’t stand the president, even many of those who voted for him.  Further, many feel that he and other world powers are edging us all closer to a global conflict.  https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2018/12/26/cocktails-hell-korea-china-russia-peace-war-austin-bay-column/2376471002/.  At least, as political historian Austin Bay has said, they have forged “an extremely hazardous form of peace.” I know that Bay’s topic is much more important than baseball, but I can’t help but think that this phrase is an apt description for the current state of owner/player relations.  I would prefer that they adopt my own term – “spring-training anmesia” – but at the very least they should heed the famous wisdom of George Santayana:  “those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it.”    Rob Manfred should remember the last MLB strike in 1994 because he was involved in it.  Commissioner, baseball’s past, and it’s future, is in your hands.

On that cheery note, I wish you a Happy New Year, one that is certain to continue the winds of change on the baseball field and probably in the world as well.  I am about to go up to the roof to watch the fireworks marking the end of San Antonio’s Tricentennial celebration.  Three hundred years is a long time for a city to have existed in North America, and for almost 150 of those years baseball has been played here. Here’s hoping that the game will still be played three years from now, and for another 150, and perhaps even another 300 years, no matter how the game and the world may change.

Tower

P.S.  The start of 2019 looked pretty good from my new vantage point.

2019.jpg

 

 

Joy and Peace

Christmas Eve, 2017

“And the Astros are the 2017 World Series Champions!” 

This was a factual understatement by Astros radio announcer Robert Ford.   For thousands of Houstonians swamped by the flood waters rising out of Buffalo Bayou, Ford’s call of an unprecedented (although not wholly unexpected) sporting outcome brought joyous relief from the catastrophic and tragic events of only a few weeks before.

For millions more Astros fans in the wider Texas area (like my family in San Antonio) and those in many other parts of the country, Ford was reporting on a franchise’s triumph over several metaphoric post-season catastrophes during its first 55 seasons. Although only half as enduring as the famous one broken by the Cubs last year, the sometimes inexplicable events thwarting the Astros teams before 2017 had suggested a curse of some sort.  But all that is over now and there is joy in Harris County’s version of Mudville.

https://www.usatoday.com/videos/sports/mlb/2017/11/03/astros-celebrate-world-series-win-parade-through-houston/107315324/.

Joy is an emotion too seldom felt in this world. Most of us feel happy now and then, and perhaps some of us are well-adjusted enough to laugh daily, but seriously, when was the last time you felt like the guys in this picture?

bregman.jpg

This moment is why we love sports so much.  It can bring us such joy.  But of course it comes at great cost – many years of anticipation and disappointment – and often the experience is fleeting.  For most of us, joy even when it comes is not long-enduring and rarely followed by peace.

I am reminded of this on Christmas Eve as Christians commemorate another unprecedented (“Behold a virgin shall be with child.” Is. 7:14) but not unexpected (“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me.” Deut. 18:15) event.  The glorious fulfillment of this long-awaited prophecy, undoing Adam’s curse that had lasted for millennia (“Cursed is the ground because of you.” Gen. 3:17), was proclaimed to shepherds but meant for everyone, then and now:

“For behold I bring you glad tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David, a Savior, Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10).

This news was accompanied by a heavenly wish for “peace on earth and goodwill toward men.” (Luke 2:14).  Whatever faith you may have, that is a desire that we can all share and certainly the concept comes to mind most often at this time of year. Dickens may have said it best:

“I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come around…as a good time: a kind, forgiving charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely….” (“A Christmas Carol,” page 19 in my copy.)

However, this feeling also arises in times of trial, when people do extraordinary things for others who they have never met.  Sports is also, in itself and through those who play, a vehicle for healing.

Whatever your circumstances, my wish for you this Christmas Eve is that you experience the joy of this season (Christmas, not baseball) and that it surpasses even the excitement reflected on Alex Bregman’s face following his walk-off hit in in the 10th inning of Game 5 of the World Series.  Few of us (none?) will ever have that particular miraculous experience, but we all experience many blessings that we forget to savor and which, if recognized, could bring us true joy and a lasting peace.   Certainly that is the message of the angels we remember this night concerning the Prince of Peace. (Jn. 3:16; 14:27-29).

Peace on Earth.  Goodwill to Men.

 

Christmas 2016 – Signs of the First Coming or the Second?

December 25, 2016

Unless you have been frozen in a cryogenic state like Han Solo or Ted Williams (almost), you know that 2016 has been a year unlike many others.  I could argue that it was unique or unprecedented, but those are absolutes that I wouldn’t be able to prove. Therefore,  I will simply stick to the objective facts and state that 2016 is unlike any year we have seen in over a century – at least in MLB.

For actual, visual proof of that premise look no farther than the intersection of Clark and Addison Streets in Chicago. That’s the address of Wrigley Field, which opened in 1914, over 100 years ago.  In 2016 for the first time ever it became the residence of MLB’s Commissioner’s Trophy, representing the winner of the World Series.   That’s right, the last time the Cubs won the World Series (108 years ago), the team played not in venerable Wrigley Field but in West Side Park (and actually the second version of that structure). http://deadballbaseball.com/?p=2358.

Since cryogenics don’t work (yethttps://vanwinkles.com/latest-science-of-cryogenic-sleep-human-hibernation-for-space-travel), I’m sure you know that the Cubs clinched the championship in extra innings against MLB’s new Lovable Losers CLE. (What more does it take to establish a curse than to have lost two World Series Game 7’s in extra innings?) As I wrote in the summary of this year’s competition, it is at least ironic and perhaps prophetic that the year the Cubs break the Curse of the Goat is also the year six members of the Society predicted that they would do just that.  Was that simply the law of averages finally catching up to the Cubs’ futility or a sign that some of us were expecting something miraculous to happen on Earth?

Certainly the signs of something different in Wrigleyville were available for all to see. The arrival over the past five years of Epstein, Maddon, Bryant, Rizzo, Lester, Arrieta, Hendricks, Russell, Baez, Schwarber, Chapman and even Heyward all pointed to better results than had been seen in many decades on the North Side.  And I didn’t even mention the 2016 free agent addition – Ben Zobrist.  All he did was become the 2016 World Series MVP and win his second consecutive World Series, having played with KCR in 2015.  (I also didn’t mention John Lackey because as I wrote on October 11 he just seems so unpleasant – the opposite of Ben Zobrist – http://christianindex.org/chicago-cubs-ben-zobrists-man-faith/).

Looking at this Cubs line-up, an experienced baseball observer (including several Society members) had to expect success, even in a place where success hasn’t been seen in this millennium and barely was seen in the prior one.  But succeed the Cubs did, winning more games than any other MLB team and then overcoming a 3 games to one deficit in the World Series to win it in 7 games (the last two on the road).

People in Chicago risked losing their jobs to drive to Cleveland for Game 7 just so they could be at the ballpark in case this happened.  Not in the ballpark, just at the park.  Those who actually wanted to see the game placed a big bet on winning, since tickets went for as much as $20k!  I wonder if the willingness of some of the CLE fans to sell their tickets constituted the worst kind of “sell-out” and contributed to the team’s demise?  We often say that money is worth more than a championship to some players, but apparently that is true even for some fans.

In contrast, several of the Cubs’ fans sacrificed going to the ballpark in devotion to their departed family members. They preferred to listen to the game at the graves of lost loved ones so they could share the moment with them.  They made this choice even if there was just a possibility that the Cubs would win and a certainty that even if they did the shared memory would be one-sided.  But what a memory. The Cubs played a World Series game 7 in a cemetery – and won! What better way to describe 2016?

It was both an expected and yet shocking occurrence.  And that brings me to the point of this post – my first feature blog entry for the entire year. (It has been an unusual year for me, too.)  So far this may sound like a New Year’s reminiscence, but I actually have a different retrospective in mind – one that I have tried to express each of the past several years at this time but which seems more necessary this year.

This is Christmas, the day that Christians mark an event that was also both expected and yet shocking.  The Nation of Israel had long-awaited the appearance of her prophesied king – one with the stature of Moses.  Moses as both the deliverer from Egypt and the giver of the Law was viewed as the archetype for the one to come, even more than Father Abraham or King David.   Indeed, Moses kept himself in their minds by having prophesied that the leader to come would be like him:  “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him.”  Deut. 18:15.

Most likely the observant Jews looking for this event were thinking of an appearance like Moses made before Pharaoh, a grown man with miraculous powers.  An impressive personal appearance and a voice made for the movies would, of course, help set the stage. (http://daytonjewishobserver.org/2014/12/moses-at-the-movies/).  Instead, they got a refugee baby of questionable parentage born in a stranger’s barn.  But was the story that began in the manger in Bethlehem nearly two thousand years ago really so different from Moses’ story?

Moses was born to Jewish parents under oppression by a world power (Egypt).  He was hidden from the authorities to avoid being killed by Pharaoh and ultimately raised by an adoptive family.  Jesus was born to Mary, a Jewish mother, who lived under the occupation of the Roman Empire.  He was hidden from the local government to avoid being killed by Herod and was ultimately raised by his adoptive father Joseph.

Moses was called out of exile in Midian to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.  He “proclaimed Liberty throughout the land and to all the inhabitants thereof,” words so powerful that they were inscribed on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia almost three thousand years later!  (Lev. 25:10 – https://www.nps.gov/inde/learn/historyculture/stories-libertybell.htm).

Jesus came from Nazareth in the Galilee (the same as exile to the Jewish leaders of the day – “can anything good come out of Nazareth?” John 1:46) to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:19-20; quoting Isaiah 61:2).  Indeed the Lord’s favor ushered in by Jesus’ birth was actually liberty from bondage of a different sort.  As the angel foretold to Mary: “You will give birth to a son and you shall give Him the name Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins.” (Mt. 1:21).

That concept was both expected and yet shocking. The Nation of Israel expected Divine deliverance from the Romans, but they did not expect the deliverance to come through a carpenter and be in the form of spiritual acquittal rather than a physical release. Even today, two millennia later, we are still trying to understand it.  Perhaps we focus too intently on the process and lose sight of the favorable outcome.

I’m sure Joe Maddon would agree with this principle, at least when applied to baseball. Since the Cubs’ Game 7 victory Maddon has spent more time defending himself from critics of the way he managed than he has accepting the praise of fans for his leadership in their deliverance.  Even his players piled on – well, at least one player.  Aroldis Chapman – who along with Maddon might have replaced Steve Bartman in Cubs’ infamy had it not been for the tenth inning victory – said this week that his failure was Maddon’s fault. http://www.chicagotribune.com/sports/baseball/cubs/ct-aroldis-chapman-joe-maddon-postseason-20161216-story.html.   (I am not much of a Chapman fan, but in this instance I agree with him and I said so in my comments on November 3.  https://babesbaseball.wordpress.com/.

Maddon defended his actions by stating that he did what he thought needed to be done in order to win and that he felt he had Chapman’s agreement with how he was used.  At least he had not received any complaint.  But isn’t that our nature, to second guess and criticize in hindsight even when we succeeded in the first place?

Who gets the credit?  Wouldn’t it have been easier if we had done it my way?  With the rise of these questions the Cubs are learning what it’s like to be expected to win – or worse, to be viewed as a dynasty in the making. (Just ask the Golden State Warriors).  It may seem a stretch to you, but I am of the opinion that Christianity would have been much better off if it had not become an approved religion in the 4th century under Emperor Constantine, and I know that it would be more palatable to many people today if had not been forced on so many reluctant converts in the centuries that followed.

Today I have difficulty engaging in meaningful discussion with my own family, let alone with colleagues or strangers, regardless of whether we start with sports or religion or politics.  The common opening line in “dialogue” in 2016 is “how can you even think that way?”  The underlying disagreements appear so fundamental that we might as well be speaking different languages.  With such a disconnect, it is not surprising (even expected?) that some would be shocked by an outcome that they personally cannot conceive of, whether we are talking politics or religion or baseball.  And that divide, more than anything, explains where we find ourselves this Christmas, 2016.

In a tribute to Marvin Miller and Bud Selig in 2012 I wrote “… I learned a good while ago in the practice of law that you are not going to succeed if you can’t even envision your opponent being right. How can you ever understand his arguments and counter them, or hope to come to an agreement to resolve them, if you don’t start by acknowledging the possibility that your opponent’s position is right and yours is not?  ‘Come now, let us reason together.’”  (Is. 1:18.) https://babesbaseball.wordpress.com/2012/12/13/love-your-enemies-part-2-marvin-miller-and-bud-selig/.

On this Christmas Day, 2016, as we approach the new year with the Cubs as World Champions and Donald Trump as president-elect, my prayer is that a world with both such expected and shocking results will somehow repeat the loving miracle of Christmas to miraculously foster greater dialogue and understanding among all peoples.

One way or the other, I have a sense that 2017 will be a momentous year (and I don’t mean in the field of cryogenics).  Having finally broken the curse, the Cubs may repeat their feat of 1907-08 and win back-to-back World Series.  Donald Trump may bring about the apocalypse or prove to be a competent president. (H eas not my candidate but, as JP says in  the movie Angels in the Outfield, “hey, it could happen.”  And, of course, Jesus may come again.  That will happen, we just don’t know when.  Perhaps the historic events of 2016 were just the precursor to 2017’s main event.  That would, again, be expected yet shocking.

The New Boys of Summer

In 1972 when journalist Roger Angell published his memoir of covering the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers – “The Boys of Summer” – he selected the title from a poem by Dylan Thomas published in 1934 – “I see the boys of summer.” Angell’s excerpt certainly fit the ideal that baseball fans have of their beloved game – a leisurely vacation pasttime performed by youthful males before appreciative masses, both male and female. As we approached the halfway point of the major league season, marked the official beginning of summer and now celebrate the 239th birthday our Nation during a period of great change in our society, I have been watching many baseball games and thinking a lot about the boys of summer.

It is a complex time in America, but perhaps no more so than in Brooklyn in 1955 or in England in 1934. The “boys of summer” concept as described by both Angell and Thomas (as well as Don Henley) has multiple layers. Certainly Thomas’ poem is a complex work which I doubt he could have envisioned as the touchstone for an American sport. And for all his veneration of the players, Angell did not completely romanticize the state of our country in the 1950s, ’60s or ’70s. The intersection of Dylan Thomas, baseball and cultural upheaval in America was an obvious one to me, but realizing that it might not be so clear to others I will save those thoughts for the end in the hope that if you are just interested in baseball you will keep reading for at least a few more paragraphs.

Taking Angell at face value, the 2015 season appears perfectly suited for a reissued volume of his work. My overwhelming impression of MLB this season is one of youth. Seemingly every day another top prospect makes his MLB debut – Bryant, Russell, Buxton, Gallo, Lindor, Syndergaard, Correa, McCullors, Matz – and these are just the most publicized (eighteen of Keith Law’s top 100 prospects have debuted in just the first 80 games). There have actually been over 150 players who have made their first appearance in a MLB game this season.

Perhaps the complete media exposure in this Information Age skews my perception, but there can’t have been many years when such a high number of prospects appeared in such a short time, and even fewer instances – if any – where several of them immediately became recognized as among the best at their position. Is Kris Bryant the best third baseman in the NL? Is Carlos Correa the best shortstop in the AL? Is Steven Matz the best hitting pitcher of all time? (He had the greatest hitting debut of any pitcher ever – 3 hits and 4 RBI.) These young rookies can play, but the rookies are not the only youngsters.

Even the established stars of the league today still qualify in some sense as “boys” or at least “boyish.” Bryce Harper (22); Mike Trout (23) Giancarlo Stanton (25); Jose Altuve (25, and at 5’5″ Altuve shows that even a boy’s stature does not prevent one from excelling at the game). The pitchers perhaps require a little more seasoning, but not much. Scherzer is 30, but Kershaw (27), Sale (26) and Bumgarner (25) have already been stars for several years.

Most teams have at least one or two everyday players that are barely legal, but my Astros must be considered at the vanguard of the youth movement. In addition to Springer, Altuve and Correa, the Astros starting line-up often includes Tucker (24), Santana (22) and Singleton (24), and the pitching rotation includes McCullors (21) and Velasquez (23). Each of them has contributed to the Astros compiling the most wins in the AL to date (48), and they have done so with traditional natural talent utilized in an untraditional combination (leading the league in HR’s and SB’s) and new-era strategic analysis (they also lead the league in strike outs and defensive shifts). Baseball purists may be hard-pressed to say that these Astros “play the game the right way” but many organizations are taking note and beginning to copy them (some perhaps even illegally).

As an interested baseball observer as well as just a fan of my regional team, I enjoy watching the Astros, particularly Altuve and Springer. Indeed, anyone watching them play the game must observe their youthful enthusiasm. Home run or strike out, diving catch or errant throw, stolen base or caught stealing – George and Jose never seem to lose their smiles. They act like boys at summer play and, dare I say, remind me “of what was once good, and could be again.”

However, these players’ attitudes belie the reality that they have embarked on a profession so difficult that a successful career is measured by limiting one’s failure rate to 70% (a lifetime batting average of .300 could earn one membership in the sport’s hall of fame – an honor bestowed on only 215 of the over 15,000 players who have appeared in a big league game – MLB’s 1%ers!). Moreover, individual success does not guarantee a player the ultimate goal – a team world championship. Some of the greatest players in the history of MLB never won a World Series (Cobb, Bonds, Gwynn) and some never even played in one (Banks, Griffey, Carew). Thus, baseball can be a cruel profession that reflects life in many ways, which brings me back to Angell’s title and Thomas’s poem.

Thomas was a literary “phenom” himself when he published his first work of poetry at the age of 20 (which means, of course, that the verses were likely written in his teenage years). Even at that early age, Thomas’ work focused on life’s struggle and the inevitability of death. The complete first line from which Thomas and Angell each drew the title to these works is “I see the boys of summer in their ruin.”

Thomas’ following 53 lines are enigmatic but my interpretation is that he was both praising and mocking the youthful tendency to live blissfully in the moment, exhibiting no care and making no provision for the future. He both admires this trait and considers it foolishness. Angell’s reporting about the endings of the careers and even lives of the Brooklyn players makes his use of Thomas’s poem even more appropriate, but it was a choice informed by hindsight. We don’t yet know whether the new players of today will proceed on to sporting immortality or fall quickly into a slump from which they will never recover – and neither do they. Of course, the signing bonuses and salaries of today should make failure on the field less damaging, but we all know that there is no amount of money that can’t be lost and no amount of retained fortune that can guaranty happiness. That calls to mind two additional lines from Thomas’ poems that you may be familiar with – “Do not go gentle into that good night,” and my personal favorite, “And death shall have no dominion.”

On this 4th of July, 2015, many people in America are celebrating new freedoms, ones that would have been very difficult for our founding fathers to have envisioned (and, in my opinion, to accept). I am still considering what the Supreme Court has said that our Constitution provides, recognizing as a lawyer that the scope of the law and my personal religious beliefs may have differing arcs. Time will tell about those matters, but today it is summer, it is our Nation’s birthday, and the Astros are playing at Fenway Park in Boston (after beating the Sox 12-8 last night). God Bless America.

Memorial Day Memory

May 25, 2015

We all know that today is a day for remembering those who died in the service of our country. You may not know that the occasion has been observed since as far back as 1861 when flowers and ribbons were used to decorate the graves of honored Civil War dead. Hence the occasion became generally known as “Decoration Day” but was also called “Memorial Day” by many. Both names were used for nearly a century until the situation was finally decided by Congress in 1967 with the formal adoption of “Memorial Day” as a national holiday. That was about the time of my first Memorial Day memory.

I can’t say for certain, but it would have been either 1968 or 1969 when I marched in my hometown’s Memorial Day parade. I know it had to be one of those two years because I remember wearing my first Little League uniform, heavy grey cotton with dark navy piping and dark navy block letters spelling out “BRAVES” across the front. (I still have the team photo hanging in the hallway of my home.) On the back in block letters was the name of our team sponsor – “CHEROKEE LIONS” – “Cherokee” for the region of East Tennessee where I grew up that was originally inhabited by that brave group of Native Americans, and “Lions” for the international service club. Through the power of the internet, I found that this organization still operates today, nearly 50 years later (http://tnlions.org/district/lions-clubs/). Unfortunately, I was not able to learn whether the organization still sponsors a Little League ball club, and even more unfortunately, I did learn that the Braves no longer exist. http://www.mymorristown.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/2015-BOYS-Little-League.pdf.

Yet, perhaps this fact makes my memory even more compelling, since I am remembering a team and perhaps a time as well that no longer exists other than in memory. I recall vividly marching through the streets of my hometown behind a color guard carrying a waving Stars and Stripes and the red, white and blue of the Tennessee State Flag (bearing 3 stars for the three diverse regions of the state rather 50 for our country or one for the memory of its former republic like my adopted home state of Texas). http://www.netstate.com/states/symb/flags/tn_flag.htm.

I remember marching between crowds of waving citizens on each side. It would be the only time I ever wore a uniform to a public event and the closest I would ever come to feeling like a hero, although the idea of a “returning hero” was not common in those days. I recall a distinct sense of pride in my country even though by this time the nation surely understood that the Vietnam War was not something that all Americans were proud to be part of.

As a Little League ball player, however, those complex feelings were far from my mind. I was occupied with much clearer pursuits. I loved baseball. I loved winning, and I loved being noticed. Truthfully, I haven’t changed much in the past half-century. I still love baseball and winning. I no longer care much for recognition, however, and will gladly forfeit it in exchange for a collective victory. I also have a greater awareness of the world around me and the incredible debt I owe to the men and women who have worn the uniform of America’s armed forces. As a resident of one of the nation’s military hubs (San Antonio is the home of the United States Southern Command), many of these men and women are now my neighbors and some are my friends. I am grateful for their sacrifices that have preserved this nation and that will allow me to watch several baseball games today in a free country and safe environment.

You may think it trivial to associate Memorial Day with baseball, but the connection is most assuredly there. I am also constantly reminded of the relationship between the sense of pride in American freedom and the beauty of America’s invention in baseball. This happened again just hours ago while I was watching the ESPN Sunday Night Game of the Week. Bernie Williams, NYY’s centerfielder from 1991-2006, was at Yankee Stadium to have his #51 retired when he was asked by Curt Schilling if any one moment stood out in his long career that included four world championships. I was stunned to hear Williams say that among his 2,076 games played his greatest memory was of President George W. Bush throwing out the first pitch for the resumption of baseball after the attacks of 9/11. I have posted this video before, but how can I not honor Bernie’s greatest memory on his special occasion and on this Memorial Day? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bxR1tZ08FcI. The nation preserves the freedom to play baseball, and those who love baseball never stop saying thanks.

The nation has seen many difficult days during its 239 years and lost many brave soldiers that are worthy of lasting memory. Baseball has marked over half of those years and honored many of those who have served during this time and even employed a few. Indeed, today a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy will be on active duty on a MLB roster for the first holiday in nearly a century. http://m.cardinals.mlb.com/news/article/122659960/cardinals-reliever-mitch-harris-becomes-first-navy-grad-to-earn-mlb-win. What do you think are the chances that Mike Matheny finds a place for him to pitch in today’s game in St. Louis? As certain as the Star-Spangled Banner still waving over Busch Stadium?

My Little League Cherokee Lions Braves team may no longer exist after 50 years, but the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave most assuredly does. Here’s to the next 50 years. Play ball!

We Interrupt This Marriage…

To Bring You Baseball Season!

Those are the words emblazoned on a plaque my wife gave me for my birthday, which occurs each year two weeks before Opening Day.  Our marriage has survived 27 such interruptions and I don’t expect the 28th to be the exception. However, I do expect this to be an exceptional baseball season.

There are simply too many potentially exciting story lines to consider this a routine season, starting with the changing of the guard in MLB’s elite.  My brother Carl expressed this change perfectly when he said he has had a recurring dream that LAD, NYY, SFO, DET and BOS all miss the post-season.  I don’t expect that much change this year, but it is at least possible.

In contrast, almost all of the excitement surrounding this Opening Night is the revitalization of the Cubs and the seemingly unstoppable remaking of the Padres.  The SDO storyline wrote another amazing chapter just today as the team acquired Craig Kimbrel from ATL.  Adding the best closer in MLB to an already strong bullpen, a very competitive rotation and an exciting outfield just keeps the intrigue growing in California.  Who could have imagined that the most talked about team in  that state would be the Padres rather than the Dodgers, Giants or Angels? A. J. Preller has made a historic debut as a GM, regardless of how his team performs on the field.

My excitement for this season, however, is for a prediction of something more historic.  There are only two franchises in MLB that have not played in a World Series.  Can you name them?  If not, just read on because they are my picks for the NL and AL champions.  That would guarantee a first time World Series champion.  That hasn’t happened since 1906 when the Cubs and White Sox played the first intra-city series in just the third year of the Fall Classic.  So I am predicting something that hasn’t happened in over 100 years, but it does not involve the Cubs.  That prediction will have to wait till next year.

My picks:

NL: East – WAS; Cen – STL; West – LAD; Wild – PIT; MIA; NLCS – WAS

AL: East – TOR; Cen – DET; West – LAA; Wild – SEA; CLE; ALCS – SEA

World Series – WAS

NL: MVP – Stanton; Cy Young – Strasburg; Batting – McCutchen

AL: MVP – Cano; Cy Young – Hernandez; Batting – Altuve

For the archives, I have pasted in below all of my commentary from the off-season.  I intend to review at the end of the year not just the accuracy of my predictions for winners, but also my forecast for each team’s win total.

April 4, 2015

Pick a Team, Any Team.

I have written many times about parity in baseball and how more teams have a legitimate shot at the World Series than perhaps ever before.  I wrote that before lowly KCR came within one swing of winning the championship last year, though admittedly I was not thinking of the Royals when I made that observation.  We have seen several teams make surprise returns to the post-season and several unlikely champions, including recent winners SFO and BOS.  They are winning franchises, of course, but each has won titles in years when it was unexpected.  The wildcard, now wildcards, obviously improves the chances for unexpected winners even with the adjustment in 2013 creating the wildcard play-in game.  I believe there are as many as 15 teams that could win the World Series this year, and perhaps 5 of them are in the AL East.

Many of you may scoff at that assertion about the AL East and perhaps I should modify the comment to state only that any of those five teams could win the division.  Either way, perhaps the more surprising aspect of the study is that the least likely of the five AL East teams to win either the division or the World Series is NYY.  They may finish ahead of TBR, but not if the Rays’ pitching staff performs up to its ability, and especially not if NYY’s injury situation does not improve.  NYY should not finish ahead of any of the other division teams, with BAL and TOR clearly better on paper and BOS having made more off-season moves.  BOS’s pitching staff, however, is as fragile and questionable as is NYY’s.

BAL deserves much credit for the their performance last year and they can expect to contend again this year. Buck will make it happen even without Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis.  However, I believe this is the year that another of the longest post-season droughts ends – the one north of the border.  TOR has not been in the post-season since 1993 when Joe Carter skipped around the bases after one of only 2 walk-off World Series-winning home runs.  I don’t see a return to the Series this year, but I do believe this teams wins the AL and returns to the post-season.  Go Canada!

Predicted AL East finish and win totals

TOR – 89

BAL – 85

BOS – 84

NYY – 79

TBR – 77

April 3, 2015

Blood feud returning?

Of the many interesting anticipated story lines this season, the one with perhaps the most tension is the effect the revitalization of the Cubs will have on its long-standing rivalry with the Cardinals.  The teams have never gotten along, but with the Cubs having been so bad for so many years some of the edge has worn off.  Now that the Cubs may be competitive again, with a true number one starter in Jon Lester and any number of potential phenoms in the field, STL will have to take them seriously again.  Cardinal is the color of a red bird, but it is also the color of blood, and we could see some of it on Opening Night when the Cardinals open the season at Wrigley.

Some tense games at least are likely as everyone assumes that the Cubs will be greatly improved.  Personally, I have a suspicion that STL is declining.  Mastery over Clayton Kershaw has made the past two seasons look better than they might have actually been. Excellent pitching has masked a weak offense, and the stellar STL front office showed a bit of desperation in my opinion when they traded Shelby Miller for Jason Heyward.  Perhaps Heyward will come through on his own and also enable Matt Holiday and Matt Carpenter to return to better form.  However, I seriously question whether his offensive contribution will be as important as the potential 12-15 wins Wacha might have contributed.  It is not often that STL’s management makes a mistake, so I will withhold ultimate judgment on that deal.  Either way, I see this team struggling all season but still prevailing in a division that is declining top to bottom.

STL predicted win total – 88

Backstop is an important concept

The Pirates backed up their 2013 return to the post-season with a reappearance last year.  Unfortunately they got white-washed by SFO as the Giants began another World Series run with a 8-0 shutout.  There were still some very positive developments for PIT, starting with Josh Harrison coming out of nowhere to contend for the MVP award.  The outfield already had an MVP centerfielder (McCutchen) and has now added two potential MVP’s (Marte and Polanco). This outfield may be the best in all of baseball, which is saying something in an era when the biggest stars seem to be in the outfield.  The pitching staff is questionable but the biggest problem is the loss of catcher Russell Martin to the Blue Jays.  Do not underestimate his influence in getting the Pirates back in the post-season both seasons he wore black and gold.  It will be interesting to see if they can accomplish that without him as backstop.

PIT predicted win total 86

No Juice

Long-time readers of this site know how critical I was of Ryan Braun when he finally admitting he had been cheating after years of aggressive denial. I still assign him a significant position of dishonor among sport’s most discredited stars (he’s baseball’s Lance Armstrong).  His statistics have dropped considerably since he served his suspension for PED’s and this year is not likely to be any different.  Without his illegally inflated numbers in the middle of the lineup, MIL has dropped back to a second tier team in the NL and a very unlikely post-season candidate.  Trading Yordani Gallardo to the Rangers (who will now be TEX’s Opening Day starter) made about as much sense as DET trading Doug Fister to WAS, and DET had much more to work with than do the Brewers.  I don’t expect much excitement from Miller Park this season beyond the unveiling of a statue of Bud Selig.

MIL predicted win total 80

Wrigley Rebuilding

In all the uproar about the Cubs sending Kris Bryant to the minors to start the season, few people seemed to notice that there are other, more established icons who will have to wait until May to make an appearance at Wrigley Field this year.  Due to all of the work on the ancient ballpark, there are currently no bleachers in either left or fight field.  No bleachers? No Bleacher Bums!  According to reports, the left field bleachers should be open by May 1 and the right field section available by the end of May.  What a perfect way to welcome Bryant to the Show – a revamped outfield structure for the next 100 years of Cub lore.  It will be interesting to see if the results of century enables the Cubs’ fans to forget the past century.  I doubt that his year will be the actual turning point.

CHI predicted win total 76

Queen City Sinking

Cincinnati is the birthplace of professional baseball and the home of some of the greatest teams in MLB history. It is a proud city with a history of ballparks along the Ohio River.  Unfortunately for Reds fans, The Great American Ballpark is not even close to PIT’s PNC Park in beauty.  Even more unfortunate is the fact that the Reds’ talent is also inferior to that of its division rival to the northeast. Indeed, this year could be see CIN sink to the bottom of the Central division.  Joey Votto, Homer Bailey and Jay Bruce have all under-performed since signing big contracts.  Bailey will actually start the 2015 season on the DL, which is bad news for the pitching staff.  Most experts consider Johnny Cueto to be the most-likely staff ace to be traded, and the Reds have been shopping second baseman Brandon Phillips for over a year.  That tells you what the experts and the team management think of the team’s chances this year.

CIN predicted win total – 75

Embarrassment of Riches

I know LA is the land of the beautiful people and even more rich people, and that it has been home to some dominant sports teams, as well.  The Dodgers have not succeeded in LA like the Lakers have – I guess a move from Minneapolis is better than a move from Brooklyn – but no one can argue which franchise is in better shape today and perhaps for the next five years to come (will the Lakers ever climb out of this hole?).  LAD has two of the best pitchers and so many weapons on offense (although still too many outfielders).  I know SFO is a dynasty of sorts and that the Padres are likely to be the most improved team in baseball, but I still can’t pick against the Dodgers.  I felt that way before I watched them hit nine home runs in two games against the Rangers at the Alamodome in my hometown of San Antonio.

Predicted LAD win total 90

March 27, 2015

Hitting the Ground Sprinting

The biggest surprise of the off-season was the amazing overhaul of the San Diego Padres accomplished by first year general manager A. J. Preller. How does a first-year, first-time GM acquire James, Shields, Matt Kemp, Justin Upton and Wil Myers in two off-season months?  It was an impressive debut by any standards and has gained Preller great respect in front offices around the league.  Of course, he hasn’t won a single game yet, and he doesn’t wear a uniform.

In that regard, one of the best moves Preller made was perhaps the move he did not make – changing managers. Bud Black is entering his 9th season as Padres’ manager and has averaged 77 wins.  In his first eight seasons as Padres manager Bruce Bochy averaged 78 wins.  He is now a lock to make the Hall of Fame.  Could this be the year Bud becomes even ore like the other BB and posts some major W’s?

Projected SAN win total – 81

World Series Off-Year

It is a rare feat when a team wins three World Series titles in five years or fewer.  Only NYY, BOS and the A’s (as both PHI and OAK) have done it in addition to reigning champs SFO, who as we all know have won in the previous three odd-numbered years.  Winning championships is hard to explain, but not winning them can be even harder.  In the championship years they have averaged 91 wins; in the three other years they have averaged 83.  Those are not extraordinary differences. So why do they win some years?  I have no answer to the mystery, but I am following the calendar and expecting this to be another non-championship year.  I would give a longer explanation, but instead I will just point to the calendar.

Predicted SFO win total 78

Speaking of off years…

My perception of the Arizona Diamondbacks is that of a winning franchise.  They won 100 games in the second year of existence.  They have won the NL West Division five times and won perhaps the most exciting World Series in history (over NYY, which also makes it one of my favorites).  That is an impressive history for a franchise that is only played 17 seasons.

But now for the bad news: they have had 9 non-winning seasons, they have had multiple double-digit declines in wins and once finished with only 51 wins.  The last four seasons are a historical representation:  a shocking 94-win division championship in 2011, followed by two enigmatic 81-win pushes and last year’s 98 losses that got Kirk Gibson fired.

Kirk Gibson is associated with one of the most famous home runs in MLB history. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hCkYon5qjWI. They now have a manager named Chip Hale who is associated with one of the biggest bloopers in minor league baseball history.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hCkYon5qjWI.  Which result do we expect this year?

Projected ARI win total – 72

Rockies Relationship to Winning

It its 22 seasons, COL has averaged only 74.5 wins.  That is the second lowest team winning percentage, only .005 above the Padres.  The Rockies have won over 90 games only twice (never more than 92) and over 80 only 4 seasons. They have made the post-season 3 times, including the miracle run to the World Series in 2009 when they won 7 consecutive post-season games.   Unfortunately, they got swept in the Series and have won only one other post-season game.  Don’t expect them to add to total this year.  They will be fortunate to add one win to last year’s win total of 66.

Predicted COL win total – 62

March 19, 2015

Nationals champions

I predicted it last year and I’m predicting it again this year. I wrote last year that this team seems to have no weaknesses, and now they have added Max Scherzer to the rotation (not a weakness).  Of course, as everyone knows winning a championship requires so many things to go right. For two of the past three seasons the Nationals have endured misfortune in the postseason, but I attribute that to lack of experience (and the lack of Stephen Strasburg in 2011).  They have it now and I still feel this is a World Series team, which would be a first in franchise history.  It would be interesting if the Nationals and the Mariners win the NL and AL pennants, thus eliminating the last two teams that have yet to make an appearance in the World Series.  I think the Nationals have the better chance.

Predicted WAS win total  – 90

Marlins jumping

By now it should be no surprise to anyone that the team in Miami is on the rise. They have one of the best players in all of baseball (Stanton) – with the biggest contract – as well as many exciting position players (Yellich, Ozuna). They have a pitcher who is a superstar in the making (Fernandez) who should be young enough to return quickly from Tommy John surgery. They have a bright young manager (Redmond) who seems to get the best from his players. They had enough success last year that they should have confidence in their ability to compete with the Nationals.

All of this combines to make a very positive vibe around the Marlins team.  I felt it when I saw them last week in Spring training against the Nationals. They jumped on Gio Gonzales for three runs in the first three hitters.  He was still joking with the fans while the Marlins came for business.   Personally I would love to see the Marlins make the postseason to support my defense of their owner Jeff Loria. For all the abuse he receives, he should be the one to get the credit for this positive revitalization.

Predicted MIA win total  – 86

Congestion ahead

Anyone who has ever driven in Atlanta knows that its traffic per capita is worse than even LA. The worst of the worst occurs in North Atlanta around I 75 and Loop 285. So where does the team decide to build its new stadium? Right at the intersection of 75 and 285. Incredibly, the Braves front office proclaims that this location will be more convenient and accessible to their fan base.  I know the Fulton County fans who will have to drive to north Atlanta disagree and perhaps so do even the Cobb County fans who will drive shorter distances but in even greater traffic.

Perhaps an even greater deterrent to fans will be the dominance of the Washington Nationals (they won the division by 17 games last year) and the rise of the Miami Marlins. I don’t see the Braves finishing ahead of either of those teams this year or any year in the near future, including 2017 when SunTrust Field is supposed to open.

Predicted ATL win total – 80

New York State of mind? Losers.

Any frequent reader of the site knows that I am not a Yankees fan.  However, my animosity has been directed at the franchise and not the city.  My dislike mostly stems from the way NYY has constructed its roster in years past – unfairly.  However, clearly not all of the Big Apple sports teams have had the success the Yankees have, no matter how they try.

The Knicks are one of the worst teams in the NBA and the Jets are not much better in the NFL. The Rangers have fallen on hard times in the NHL, and even the Yankees have missed the playoffs two years in a row and are not expected to make it this year.

The most damning thing I can say about the Mets is that no one even thinks about them anymore. They do have two world championships to their credit but the last one was almost 30 years ago. The championship in 1986 is remembered mostly for the Red Sox collapse. Of course the 1969 title is one of the most unlikely in baseball history. If they were to somehow win the World Series this October it would, in my opinion, be no less Amazin’ then that first championship season.

Predicted NYM when the total – 75

Nothing to see here, move along now

I could write hundreds of words about the lessons to be learned from the construction of the Philadelphia Phillies lineup over the last decade – and most of them would be unflattering.  It is best to just move on past the scene of the accident.  Of course, we always have an on-looker slow-down.

The team did win a World Series which was the first in almost a half century, so that is some measure of success. However failing to realize the inevitable decline of superstars and holding on to pitching stars before that decline were serious mistakes for which the franchise is paying a steep price both in terms of dollars and losses.  No improvement is in sight this year and the train wreck just got worse with Cliff Lee being placed on the 60-day disabled list.  His career may even be over.  Cole Hamels will be surely be traded but not for enough to make the fans expect another World Series title anytime soon.

Predicted PHI win total – 68

March 19, 2015

How do you import from DET?

Perhaps you have noticed the service mark used for the past year by the Chrysler auto company – “imported from Detroit.”  I assume the slogan attempts to associate Chrysler’s products with the luxury brands that wealthier American car owners prefer – BMW, Lexus, Infiniti, Audi, etc. However, the emphasis just doesn’t sound right to me.  Isn’t that slogan really expressing that Detroit is a foreign territory?  And in addition to slighting Detroit, how does that inference encourage American buyers to purchase the product?  I thought advertising these days was based on “buy American!” It is a mystery to me, even though I do own a Chrysler product (a Jeep, which is not featured in this ad campaign).

Another mystery to me is how DET has failed to win the World Series in the past five years with the best pitching staff and the best player in MLB during that period.  They have come close but it appears to me that the window of opportunity is closing.  With the loss of Max Scherzer and the decline of Justin Verlander how can we consider this team to be better than last year’s which only one the division by one game over KCR?  (Or the team the year before that which only finished one game ahead of CLE?) Considering how bad DET looked in getting swept by BAL in last year’s division series, I am inclined to predict a total collapse this year.  However, I will be kind to my apparently foreign neighbors and predict only a modest decline in W’s. I will also still give them the division title in a very crowded race.

Predicted DET win total – 87

Southside Surprise – 10 years later

I went to an Astros Spring training game last week in Florida and received a free pennant marking the 10th anniversary of the team’s surprising NL pennant in 2005.  Unfortunately for me and other Astros fans, the surprise AL pennant winner, CWS, became the surprise WS winner in what had to be the closest sweep in Series history.  Truthfully, the Astros could have won all four games that they lost, but excellent pitching and timely hitting by CWS turned each game in its favor.

Those traits are exactly what White Sox fans are looking for this year with the off-season additions of Jeff Samardzija, David Phelps, Melky Cabrera and Adam Laroche.  Assuming Chris Sale’s injury is not serious, CWS should be much-improved, but a World Series title would still be as much of a surprise as it was 10 seasons ago.

Predicted CSW win total – 85

A team with no names

Quick now, tell me who is the ace of the CLE pitching staff.  Can’t answer that, then just tell me who was the 2014 AL Cy Young winner.  The surprising answer to both questions is Corey Kluber.  Personally, I feel the award was stolen from Felix Hernandez, but it wasn’t Kluber’s doing.  By all accounts he is quality individual who has worked hard to emerge as a quality pitcher fairly late in life (he’ll be 29 in April).  Because of his limited service time he’ll only make $610k this year.  (That is a very interesting stat – the NL Cy Young winner makes $22 million/year.)

Anyway, we can all hope Corey gets a nice contract before his 4 more pre-arbitration years expire.  Perhaps by then his and a few other names on the CLE roster will be recognizable.  Nick Swisher has retired and Michael Bourne is hurt.  Can we name any other starter? But they do have than manager named Francona.  He’s pretty good at winning games no matter what name is on the front or the back of the jersey.  Therefore, CLE should compete for the AL Central division title in a year when there is no dominant team.

Predicted CLE win total – 85

March 11, 2015

Royals Renaissance?

Is it just me or do you also find it hard to believe that KCR came within one swing of winning the World Series last year? If Salvador Perez had homered with Alex Gordon on third rather than fouling out to Pablo Sandoval we would be talking about a miraculous rebirth of baseball in the heartland rather than an alternating year Dynasty by the Bay. We also would not have seen Madison Bumgarner as SI’s Sportsman of the Year.  But close does not count in baseball – just ask the Texas Rangers – and therefore the 2014 post-season success of the Royals is remembered mostly just in Kansas City.

The off-season did not do much to recreate the dream-like atmosphere.  The team lost James Shields, Billy Butler and Nori Aoki to free agency, and signed Edinson Volquez, Kris Medlin and Alex Rios.  That seems like a push at best and probably a net loss.  Also, no one knows whether the post-season awakening of Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas was an October fluke or whether each of these potential stars has truly turned a corner.  Even if the latter is the case, the team still has several holes to fill.  I hate to be a nay-sayer because it was great to see Royal (baby) blue back in the post-season, but I just don’t see it happening again (like I didn’t see it coming last year).

Predicted KCR win total 84.

March 10, 2015

MLB Player Managers

There has been an increase recently in the number of managers who were not only former players, but very good players and who had no prior managerial experience.  Mike Matheny and Brad Ausmus have already gotten their teams to the World Series and LCS, respectively.  Walt Weiss has struggled with a COL team whose stars can’t stay healthy.  Ryne Sandberg managed several years in the minors and may want to go back there by the time he is finished with his second year as PHI’s manager.

This year we will be watching a Hall of Fame player with no prior managerial experience.  Paul Molitor takes over from Ron Gardenhire as just the third manager for the Minnesota Twins since 1986.  Unfortunately for him, he is the biggest story for the team this year.  More unfortunate is the fact that the last time a Hall of Fame player managed a World Series champion was 1935 – Mickey Cochrane for the Detroit Tigers.  Before that it was Frank Chance for the Chicago Cubs.  When you are talking about a record based on the Cubs winning a World Series, you know it is a very rare feat indeed.  Good luck, Paul.

Predicted MIN win total 71.

March 3, 2015

California Dreamin’

Although this site is devoted to baseball, even I have to acknowledge the recent acceleration in the race among NFL owners to place their team in LA .(Can it really be considered a race when it has been going on for 20 years?)  Perhaps it has something to do with the Dodgers and Clippers both having sold for over $2 billion, but the owners of the Raiders, Chargers and Rams all seem to have discovered that there is a large untapped market for their sport.  The fact that two of those teams were once residents in LA and decided operations were more lucrative elsewhere seems to have been lost on them, but these are not the 1990’s.  Large markets generate large television revenues which build large sports team valuations. Personally, I don’t care if the NFL ever returns to LA, but I do recognize that the revenue generated in that market has attributed to the return to prominence of its two MLB teams – LAD and LAA.  Large revenue supports large payrolls which can – sometimes – support championship teams.

Over the weekend I watched MLB Network’s countdown of the top 100 players in baseball.  To no one’s surprise, the top two both play for teams with the initials “LA” – Clayton Kershaw and Mike Trout (also two of the highest paid players in MLB).  Both stars flamed out in the post-season last year, but they did earn their respective league MVP awards and have to be considered leading candidates to win again.  I am sure that both would gladly forgo repeat individual awards if it means winning a pennant or perhaps even the World Series.  Can either (or both) lead his team to that height?  That’s what the fans in Southern California are dreaming about, but I feel certain that at least the Anaheim version of “LA” will fall short.

LAA won 98 games in 2014 and Trout finally won the AL MVP after finishing second to Miguel Cabrera in his rookie and sophomore seasons.  His first three full seasons in the league have been remarkable, but his first post-season appearance was remarkably forgettable (.083/.267/.333).  In prose, those numbers mean: one hit in twelve at bats.  That one hit was a home run, but doesn’t that just underscore what was missing in the other 11 at bats?  It may be unfair to single-out Trout for the loss to KCR, but truthfully everything about the Angels revolves around him.  The $260 million man, Albert Pujols, can’t carry the team, and the $125 million man, Josh Hamilton, may not even be on the team this year.  Garret Richards might not be back from injury until the All-Star Break and second baseman Howie Kendrick was traded.  Quick, can you name his replacement, or even any other starter?

LAA should still be good enough to win a division that it won last year by 12 games over a team that has been completely overhauled.  However, I don’t think they will win 97 games again and they could actually fall behind SEA or even OAK if Trout does not have even a “normal” year by his standards.  That’s a lot of pressure on a guy who won’t turn 24 years old until August 7, and who already has a $144 million contract.

Predicted LAA win total: 90

March 1, 2015

Killer Kuh’s?

King Felix, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager may not roll off the tough like Biggio, Bagwell, Bell and Berkman, but like those four core players of the Astros’ rise out of mediocrity, this group could help SEA finally make it back to the post-season after 14 seasons.  Few expected the team that won 116 games in 2001 to lose in 5 games to a 95-win Yankees team.  Even fewer would have guessed that the Mariners would not return to the post-season for at least the next 15 years.  Only TOR has a longer drought (21 years), and they at least have those back-to-back World Series titles to remember.

The Mariners are one of 8 remaining teams to have never won a World Series, and are one of only two franchises that have never even played in the World Series (MON/WAS).  Changing either of those dismal facts in 2015 seems unlikely, but breaking the post-season shut-out streak is possible. Felix Hernandez remains one of the three best pitchers in MLB.  The rest of the rotation could be very strong with Iwakuma (another Kuh!), James Paxton, Taijuan Walker and others.  Nelson Cruz should aid Robinson Cano, but I’m guessing Kyle Seager sinks under the weight of his $100 million contract. That’s right, a guy with 3.5 years MLB service and a career .757 OPS signed a 7-year $100 million deal. (And we thought Cano’s deal was hard to justify!  The team is improving, but too may questions remain to invest so heavily, if you know what I mean.

Predicted SEA win total: 86

February 28, 2015

Can Billy Beane be right again?  If so, just how right?

Several teams underwent severe makeovers this off-season, and most of them needed it (more about the Padres later). The most intriguing rebuilding job was by the league’s acknowledged genius, Billy Beane, now entering his 18th season at OAK’s GM.  During his 14-year tenure, OAK has made the post-season eight times, but won only one series, a 3-game sweep of MIN in the 2006 Division Series.  Perhaps the dismissive words of Joe Morgan near the end of the movie “Moneyball” are gaining credibility – “you can’t build a winning post-season baseball team with a computer.”

Of course, Joe Morgan is out of the baseball picture and Billy Beane very much retains his reputation for brilliance. However, it appears that Beane himself recognized some truth to Morgan’s criticism when he completely dismantled last year’s post-season roster.  Will this be the year that he hits on the perfect combination of bargain players to get OAK to the ALCS and perhaps the World Series?  That seems unlikely with LAA having finished 10 games ahead of them in the standings last year and SEA continuing to rise.  TEX and HOU should be better, too.  Just making the post-season will be a challenge, as will – perhaps – maintaining Beane’s sterling reputation.

Predicted OAK win total 85.

February 21, 2015

Daniels in the lion’s den

When the Texas Rangers won consecutive AL Pennants and shed their 50-year old image as hapless losers, the management team of Nolan Ryan and Jon Daniels were hailed as geniuses.  Of course, the Rangers lost both World Series and then started to decline.  When Nolan Ryan was unceremoniously demoted in 2013 in favor of Daniels, I was surprised and wondered what ownership knew that I did not.  Well, I am still wondering.

2014 was a year of unprecedented injuries for many teams, but no one experienced what happened to the Rangers – Profar, Fielder, Harrison, Holland, Darvish, Perez, Ogando, Choo, Feliz and others all went down with serious injuries.  The DL looked like the 40-man roster.  Although other players just had down years, the injuries appeared to be the real reason TEX went from division favorite to last place.  They lost more games than the Astros!  You just never know.

So Daniels gets a pass for last year’s disaster (even his manager let him down).  Some of those players will be back at full strength – except Profar, who may never play again – and some will not return until the middle of the season.  However, I still believe the team that Jon Daniels assembled can challenge the Angels if the majority of the pieces can stay healthy.  If not, the progress this franchise made early in this decade could be totally lost and the team once again will be thought of as the Strangers.   Ownership may wish they had kept Nolan and demoted Daniels.  Of course, Nolan now works for the Astros, alongside his son, Ryan, the team president.

Given all the uncertainty, I don’t expect a division title, or even a post-season appearance, but TEX should win more games than HOU, and more than it loses.

Predicted TEX win total:  80

February 19, 2015

It’s Spring! (Training)

I know the equinox is still four weeks away, but in my book it is already Spring.  Eighteen of the thirty MLB teams have opened camp and begun preparations for the 2015 season.  I have purchased tickets for ATL @HOU, March 9, Section 111, Row 8, seats 1 and 2, at Kissimmee, FL, and my daughter and I are already debating whether the Astros really can contend in the AL West.

That seems like a silly question since LAA won 97 games last year and could be better this year if Garret Richards is healthy for the entire season.  But in the post-season KCR made the Angels look very ordinary.  Could that happen again, even over the course of a long season?  The Astros and the Angels were the most improved teams last year.  Of course the Astros had the most room for improvement, and many expect them to be even better this year with the return of future star George Springer from injury and the addition of some veterans – Colby Rasmus, Evan Gattis and Jed Lowrie.  Compete for the post-season?  Very unlikely.  A .500 season?  Very possible.  That’s news in Houston and cause for an early Spring fever.

Predicted HOU win total – 73.

Twenty-nine more teams to ponder between now and Opening Night on April 5.

January 9, 2015

Halls of Fame Calling

Congratulations to each of the MLB greats honored this week with election to a Hall of Fame.  The election sanctioned by the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America (IBWAA) named five new members:  Randy Johnson (98.24%), Pedro Martinez (95.15%), John Smoltz (82.82%), Jeff Bagwell (81.94%) and Tim Raines (79.30%).

Craig Biggio and Mike Piazza were elected previously in 2013 and 2012, respectively.  The balance of voting can be reviewed at the IBWAA site, http://www.ibwaa.com.  My personal ballot this year included all those elected except Raines, but also included Barry Bonds.

The Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA), in the vote associated with the museum in Cooperstown, NY, elected Johnson, Martinez, Smoltz and Biggio.  Piazza, Raines and Bagwell continue to wait for election by that body.

January 4, 2015

A belated Happy New Year to all Society members.  I celebrated the start of the 2015 season on the beautiful white beaches of North Florida.  Not quite Spring Training territory, but not bad for the an off-season hang-out and a very nice place to watch New Year’s fireworks.

Seaside fireworks

There are sure to be more fireworks in FL this season given all that has transpired in Miami and St. Petersburg in the off-season.  The fortunes, and the reputations, of the two FL MLB franchises are undergoing another reversal.  The Marlins have won two World Series but have never completely earned the respect of the league or the fans.  The seemingly constant pendulum swinging has once again swung upward and the Marlins will be a trendy pick for the 2015 NL East Division crown. The Rays changed their name and their image during Joe Maddon’s tenure, but he his now in CHI and this year’s TBR squad may more closely resemble the hapless old “Devil” Rays.  As I predicted last month, the events of this off-season and the likely results of this coming season may hasten the demise of MLB on the Gulf Coast.

Jeffrey Loria on the rise and Stu Sternberg on the decline?  Is there any better evidence that everything in life is cyclical? I even thought I saw Loria in church at Seaside Chapel. I was mistaken but that could have been an omen.

Many more states and teams to discuss in the days ahead.

Some thoughts about Christmas and team chemistry

December 24, 2014

 

 

Another Christmas Eve has arrived. It is my personal 56th observance and the seventh for the Best American Baseball Experts Society. It is interesting to me that so few stand out with any particular memory either of a personal or sporting nature. I tend to recall events in familiar patterns – last-minute shopping, late night worship services followed by even later night toy assembly, or at least the inventorying of gifts and offering of prayers for favored selections. Newer traditions of listening to the live broadcast of a Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College – Cambridge and the writing of a B.A.B.E.S. Christmas greeting have provided some much-needed reflection in what can often be a time of superficial distraction and even personal uncertainty. (Do you control who is at your home for the holidays?)

Considering all that has transpired in MLB since the Giants won another World Series on October 29, there is very likely some distraction and uncertainty this Christmas Eve for many ballplayers. Incredibly, over 100 players from MLB 40-man rosters have been traded in the last 60 days. At least some of those players must be uneasy as they contemplate spring training with new faces in new locations. The same must be true for several of the thirty General Managers (yes, we are thinking of you, Billy Beane). Teams that were already post-season participants, like OAK and LAD, have made wholesale changes to their starting line-ups. Teams on the rise like MIA and SEA have tried to find the last pieces to the post-season puzzle. And teams in decline have taken aggressive action to change course (see ATL, CWS, and yes, even NYY).

I will comment more on the substance of these efforts in the weeks leading up to Spring Training, but on this Christmas Eve I am thinking about the one aspect of these moves that I believe is more important than any other – team chemistry. Since 1969 and the advent of divisional play, when teams with inferior won-lost records were allowed into the post-season competition, the team with the most wins in the regular season has won the World Series only seven times. Since 1995, when the wild-card team was introduced, the team with the best record has won only three times and the wild card team has won six times. This includes the 2014 World Champion Giants, who were the Second Wild Card Team! Clearly, something else is at play on the field or in the dugout when the post-season begins.

In the era of advanced-metrics analysis, I am sure there are mathematical explanations for this phenomenon that I am totally unaware of, but as an English major who only took math classes to prove that I could make an “A” with no actual comprehension, I am interested in the more subjective aspects of a championship team. Advanced analysis can only take you so far – see the winner of this year’s B.A.B.E.S title! Indeed, even the casual observer of the MLB post-season in the past decade should have noticed that the defining characteristic of the team holding the Commissioner’s Trophy at the end of October was not that they had the best players. Rather, for whatever reason, the winners performed – at least during the post-season – as the best team, and usually this was epitomized by some quirky expression. The BOS Idiots with beards, the SFO Misfits with Hunter Pence style, the STL “win it for Tony LaRussa” crusade. Even the teams that don’t win often credit team chemistry for just getting them close. How else can you explain mediocre teams like KCR, TBR, COL and HOU getting to the Fall Classic in recent years?

I believe that the defining characteristic of those teams was that the players got along very well. (With the possible exception of HOU in 2005: who knows what went on in a clubhouse with Roger Clemens and Jeff Kent, although they also had Lance Berkman and Andy Pettitte.) These teams had leaders who were willing to make themselves part of the team’s story rather than demanding or simply allowing the team’s story to be about them. Just look at this list of LCS and World Series MVP’s over the past 15 years and tell me how many of the 45 names you will ever see on a plaque in Cooperstown. http://www.baseball-reference.com/awards/postmvp.shtml. I count fewer than five. Where were the stars in those series? The series made the stars, not vice versa. A team with many good players performing together as a team will almost always defeat a team with a few great players no matter how they are performing.

This is why, I believe, we are seeing so many players changing teams – players that are not great but who have abilities GM’s believe can improve the team. These are not the proverbial 5-tool players. Many have only one of the five gold stars: hit, hit for power, run, catch or throw – but in combination with 23 other players of complementary incompleteness they can form a team that can win enough games to get into the post-season. And once in the post-season, anything can happen. Witness KCR winning its first 8 games. Witness Madison Bumgarner surpassing Clayton Kershaw in the Super Hero department, particularly since Kershaw changes from Superman into Clark Kent whenever he pitches against STL. Pablo Sandoval can wink at the camera while waiting for one of the biggest at bats of his life and a rookie named Joe Panik can save a season by turning a hit into a double-play (with the aid of instant replay). (And why no one has nicknamed him “Joe-No” is beyond me. http://sports.yahoo.com/blogs/mlb-big-league-stew/joe-panik-won-t-sweat-the–panic–puns-081453149.html.) Then you have Hunter Pence, whose personality is so quirky he doesn’t even need a nickname to create a cult following even among fans from other teams. http://ftw.usatoday.com/2014/10/hunter-pence-san-francisco-giants-world-series-weird-mlb.  In every sense of the word, “character” counts for something.

That thought brings me back to the event we will observe tonight and tomorrow and the key players in it. As I wrote two Christmas Eves ago, Joseph and Mary had special skills to bring to the drama in which they were cast without auditioning. http://babesbaseball.com/2012/12/24/the-bethlehem-nine/. The Scriptures provide tantalizingly little information about either of them but imagine how different the story would be if Mary had thrown the angel Gabriel out of her house or worse, if Joseph had done what he had the legal right to do under Jewish law – have Mary stoned to death!  Fortunately, they submitted to the authority of their general manager and played their parts – Mary physically and Joseph emotionally (has anyone in history showed greater faith in buying into management’s plan?). The result of their combined characters was that a baby was born in Bethlehem, sheltered in Egypt from a murderous tyrant in his homeland and eventually raised in a rural village where he learned his earthly father’s trade. From this eventful but humble background came the most discussed leader in human history.  His leadership style was that of example, although he did his fair share of teaching, and two thousand years later millions of people still honor or disparage him every day.  Either way, they still consider his message.

Whatever your personal conclusion may be about who Jesus was or is, I encourage you to consider his advice about living one’s life: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. On these hang all the law and the prophets.” With all the strife in the world, whether it is in the clubhouse or the Middle East or your own house, these words still seem appropriate even after 2000 years. I don’t know much about the personal beliefs of those players mentioned above, but I think they exhibit the fruit of Jesus’ teachings.  They may not comprehend a greater power than themselves but they certainly understand that they cannot accomplish their goal by themselves.  Baseball, like life, is a team sport.  The higher we regard and the better we treat our fellow-men the more likely we are to experience the joy that was announced in a field so many years ago:

“Peace on earth! Good will to men!”

(JSR 2014)