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.

Hey Bud! This Series is for you.

October 21, 2014

I am not aware of any special ceremonies planned during the 110th World Series to honor the outgoing MLB Commissioner, Allen H. “Bud” Selig. If there is no mention of his imminent retirement, that will not mean that his contributions to MLB the past 22 years will go unnoticed. That would be impossible, because without Bud Selig’s influence neither SFO nor KCR would be playing in the World Series this year. Yes, the Series itself will be like a “30for30” film about Bud and Major League Baseball (there just happens to be 30 MLB teams, you know).

Let’s start with the fact that Game 1 tonight will be played in Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City. Why? Not because of the annual alternating of home field advantage that was the tradition for nearly 100 years, but rather because the AL won the All-Star Game this year in Minneapolis. That victory earned the AL pennant winner home field advantage in the Series, which has been the rule since 2003. It was changed after the 2002 All-Star Game ended in a tie when neither team had pitchers left to pitch after 10 innings. It was an embarrassing moment for Commissioner Bud, who sat in the front row of Miller Park in Milwaukee (his former owner’s seats, perhaps) with a pained look on his face about the farcical nature of the Mid-Summer Classic. His solution was to make the game “count” by awarding the winner home field advantage in the World Series. Thus KCR, the play-off team with the fewest wins during the regular season, owns home field advantage.

But that is not really unfair since often times under the alternating years approach a pennant winner with more wins would not have home field advantage. And this year, the NL pennant winner isn’t even a division winner, but rather a wild card team – and a SECOND wild card team, at that. The admission of even a first wild card team was the work of Acting Commissioner Selig in 1994. The addition of a second wild card team was accomplished on his tenured watch in 2012. So neither KCR nor SFO would have qualified for this year’s post-season tournament if not for the two decades of influence wielded by Bud.

Because the Series is starting in Kansas City, you may have read some retrospectives on the last time the Fall Classic was played there. The 1985 Series is perhaps best remembered for a missed call at first base to start the bottom of the 9th in Game 6, with the home team down 1-0. That runner eventually scored the tying run and KCR ultimately won the game, 2-1. They then won the Series in an 11-0 wipe-out in Game 7. Those two wins have now been combined with this year’s 8 consecutive wins to create a 10-game, 29-year long post-season win streak. But would that streak have even begun if the play at first place had happened in today’s game?  Replays then showed that the runner was clearly out, although it was a close play.

http://m.mlb.com/video/v13062921/85-ws-gm-6-stlkc-denkinger-misses-the-callhttp://m.mlb.com/video/v13062921/85-ws-gm-6-stlkc-denkinger-misses-the-call. This year,thanks to the influence of Mr. Selig, the official use of replay would certainly have overturned the call. Would KCR still have come back to win the game and the Series? The players for STL certainly don’t believe so.

Of course STL has won two World Championships since that 1985 debacle (or miracle, if you are a KCR fan), and has played in two other Series. During that time KCR devolved into one of the worst teams in all of professional sports and had the longest post-season drought until this month. There were many reasons for that, but the loss of many home-grown stars due to free agency (or the fear of free agency) was certainly a factor: Saberhagen, Cone, Damon, Beltran, Greinke, etc. However, this year’s successful team also has 5 homegrown stars – Gordon, Hosmer, Butler, Perez and Cain. They may yet move on in free agency, but how has KCR managed to keep them to date? Another Bud Selig influence – revenue sharing. I have previously articulated that this one accomplishment should be the true legacy of Bud Selig. http://babesbaseball.com/2012/12/13/love-your-enemies-part-2-marvin-miller-and-bud-selig/. Nothing else he has done or tried to do better served MLB or its fans than devising and achieving a means by which small-market teams can afford to retain their homegrown talent.

So, perhaps you were thinking that the observations above were leading to a critical assessment of Mr. Selig. That was never my intent. I simply wanted to establish that, whatever you think of Bud, the show you will be watching tonight is very much a reflection of him. And that is about as good a retirement celebration as anyone could want.

P.S. ESPN posted an interesting piece on Bud’s legacy as interpreted by Jerry Reinsdorf, CWS owner; Tom Davis, Former US Congressman; and Donald Fehr, former MLBPA Executive Director. http://espn.go.com/espn/otl/story/_/id/11709885/bud-selig-contemporaries-discuss-legacy-mlb-commissioner. I agree with almost everything said by all three of them and I was shocked to see Donald Fehr  (not my favorite person)express himself almost exactly as I had in my piece back in 2012:

Fehr: “But if I was going to describe what he had accomplished, I think it would come down to this — he managed to be the CEO in a significant period of time, for a very long time, and maintained the trust and confidence of his constituents. That’s pretty high praise in my book.”

Rose: “When your company has increased total revenue over 600% during your tenure, you are generally considered to be an effective CEO….If you have been on the job for nearly 20 years, are approaching 80 years old and they still want you to come to work every day, you must be doing something right.

Hot Stove Supernova

March 30, 2014

The Hot Stove League started spectacularly with stars changing teams via trade (Fielder, Kinsler) and free agency (Cano, Ellsbury, McCann).  However, the white-hot explosion flamed out well before the players reported for Spring Training.  The final few weeks were marked by teams like ATL scrambling to replace injured stars and perhaps overpaying for mid-level free agents who remained unsigned well-into February (with the exception of BAL’s signing of Nelson Cruz for only 60% of the qualifying offer he rejected from TEX).  Some teams even overpaid for their own players ($54 million for Brett Gardner?)

So who won the off-season?  As anyone who has ever read this site before knows, I do not subscribe to the “he who spends the most wins” theory.   NYY may have invested $450 million in new players, but they still did not even guarantee themselves a spot in the post-season, let alone assure World Championship #28.  Likewise, SEA may have signed the best player, but that is unlikely to buy them  anything better than a 3rd place finish in the AL West – and probably not even that.  TEX was an early leader for the Hot Stove crown, but the shine off the Fielder trade and Shin Soo Choo signing has dimmed considerably with a horrendous rash of injuries.  TEX goes from World Series contender to fighting for its post-season life.

That takes me back to BAL, with the Cruz bargain-basement signing and the last-minute deal for Ubaldo Jimenez.  Add in flyers taken on Delmon Young and Johan Santana and the Orioles are worth paying attention to in the hyper-competitive AL East.  WAS made essentially one move – adding Doug Fister – but with a roster that was already considered one of the best in MLB, adding a solid starter with post-season experience could be all that the under-achieving Nationals needed to fulfill World Series predictions one year late.  Unfortunately, Fister will start the season on the disabled list, but the injury is not expected to cause him to miss more than 5 starts.  It also gives, the Nationals the chance to test a couple of promising rookies (Tanner Roark and Taylor Jordan) without the pressure of needing them all season.  So, adhering to the “less is more” category, I am going with the Nationals as the winner of the Hot Stove League as a precursor to the first World Series title for our nation’s capital since 1924 when the Senators defeated the NY Giants with a 12-inning Game 7 victory.

For the record, I have included below all of my Hot Stove comments from the past four months, which I have removed from Homeplate and replaced with my predictions for the 2014 season.  Click on the Homeplate page to view those, although you already know who I have selected as World Series Champion.

 

 

March 26, 2014

Is it MLB or M*A*S*H?

Spring training is almost over, which is an interesting statement only due to the fact that the MLB standings already show that LAD is 2-0 and ARI is 0-2.   The anomaly of Spring games continuing while seasonal games have already taken place is actually becoming less of an anomaly and more of a tradition.  In the past decade the MLB season has held its first game in several foreign countries prior to the conclusion of Spring Training, including Mexico, Puerto Rico, Japan and now, Australia.

The real news out of Spring Training this year is the number of injuries to players who were expected to have a major impact on their team’s performance this year.  I wrote about this same problem last Spring,  http://www.babesbaseball.com/2013/03/27/part-of-the-game/,  but this year seems worse.

Here are just a few of the season-impacting losses:

Jarrod Parker, OAK, starting pitcher, Tommy John surgery

Brandon Beachy, ATL, starting pitcher, right elbow

Kris Medlin, ATL, starting pitcher, Tommy John surgery

Patrick Corbin, ARI starting pitcher, Tommy John surgery

Matt Harvey, NYM starting pitcher, Tommy John surgery

Aroldis Chapman, CIN closer, facial fractures

If that isn’t enough to make you mutter “Holy Frank Jobe!” take a look at the complete injury list here: http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/fantasy/injuries/.

After reviewing this list, you may want to rethink your predictions for 2014.  If you have already submitted your picks, I will accept revisions up till Noon, March 31.

In case you did not recognize the reference to Frank Jobe, he is the surgeon who performed the ligament transplant surgery on Tommy John in 1974, which we now call Tommy John surgery.  Truthfully, it should called the Frank Jobe surgery.  Mr. Jobe died just this past month. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2014-03-06/sports/chi-frank-jobe-tommy-john-surgery-20140306_1_tommy-john-jobe-procedure.

Baseball players owe him almost as great a debt of gratitude (and money) as they do Marvin Miller.

 

March 1, 2014

It’s March, so it must be Spring!  Or is it Autumn?

I know that snow is still falling in New England and once again the temperature will get down into the 30’s tonight even way down here in San Antonio, but the calendar still says that Spring officially arrives in twenty days.  The Vernal Equinox occurs March 20 at 12:57 EDT, to be exact, and this year that is less than 48 hours before the MLB season opens in Australia, where it will just be turning Fall.  So for the first time in MLB history, Opening Day and the Fall Classic will actually occur at the same time.  Does that seem like a weird start to the season?  Here’s what LAD’s Zack Greinke thinks about it:

http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2014/baseball/mlb/wires/02/25/2010.ap.bbn.dodgers.australia.0803/index.html.

When one of the game’s highest paid pitchers describes the official Opening Day game of the MLB season with the words “zero excitement,” you know it could be a strange year.  I’m sure that is not what Bud Selig wants to hear and the LAD front office has spent the past 3 days trying to dispute Greinke’s words.  However, the latest report is that neither he nor Clayton Kershaw will make the trip Down Under.  It will be interesting to see if Selig takes any action over that (remember when David Stern fined the Spurs $250,000 for sending Duncan, Parker and Ginobili home instead of to Miami for the last game of a road trip?)  Perhaps the only people who are truly happy about the trip are the Diamondbacks.  I imagine that they will gladly fly to Sydney for every series with the divisional rival Dodgers if they do not have to face Kershaw or Greinke.

Personally, I wonder whether there isn’t a greater force at work in Greinke’s comments. He is a very low-key guy who rarely speaks, let alone makes controversial comments.  Other than his huge contract with the LAD, about the only other time Zach has made news off the field was when it was disclosed in 2006 that he suffers from Social Anxiety Disorder.

http://socialanxietydisorder.about.com/od/celebritieswithsad/p/zackgreinke.htm.  Although he obviously has gained a measure of control, I can imagine that an exhausting trip to a foreign country at the beginning of the marathon baseball season would be enough to challenge even those who don’t face medical issues.

Chances are this will all be forgotten when MLB and North America enter Autumn in September and the post-season begins. However, if LAD does not pitch its best pitchers and loses these games in Australia and then fails to make the post-season (or loses home field advantage) by two games or fewer, we might be looking back to March 22-23 as the most important games of their season.

February 16, 2014

Is there life outside of Pin Stripes?

I apologize for going almost 3 weeks without posting anything, but I have just been waiting for something to write about that does NOT concern NYY.  Unfortunately, there just is no story in sports like the Yankees and even when I try not to obsess about how much I dislike the organization I am forced to write about them anyway.  Since my last note on the signing of Masahiro Tanaka, the newest Yankee (and the newest MLB player, never having even set foot in a MLB park!), two more events have occurred that should keep the spotlight on NYY all season – off the field as well as on.

First, Alex Rodriguez quietly gave up his fight to overturn the arbitrator’s ruling reducing but affirming his suspension by MLB.  This should be considered nothing less than a total surrender by Rodriguez – a validation of everything that MLB accused him of an invalidation of everything Rodriguez ever said in his defense.  He even changed his story in connection with the dismissal of the suit.  He didn’t continue to claim that he is innocent or that he has not been given a fair trial.  Rather, he said he now thinks a year off will do him good and that he looks forward to renewing his career and preparing for a role in baseball after his playing days are over.

What?  Did the PED’s make him delusional as well as injury prone?  It seems extremely unlikely to me that anyone would ever hire Rodriguez either in a baseball management position or even as a media commentator.  Even so, I assume that there will be some reporters who will report on what Rodriguez is doing off the field in his year in exile.  If I am wrong and he is completely forgotten throughout the coming year, it may be directly caused by his teammate of the past 10 seasons.

The other big news out of NYC this week was that The Captain, Derek Jeter, announced that 2014 would be his last season.  That can’t be much of a surprise, considering that he is still recovering from an ankle injury eighteen months after it occurred. He was limited him to 17 games in 2013 and still hasn’t shown that he is recovered well-enough to play at all, let alone man the shortstop position for a full season.  Add to that the fact that he will turn 40 before the All-Star Break and retirement begins to look obvious.  Still, many seemed surprised by the announcement (including manager Joe Girardi who said he had no clue it was coming).

Immediately articles began to appear asking whether (and some pronouncing that) Jeter is the greatest Yankee ever.  Personally, I find that hard to even discuss, given there are so many to choose from.  What he is the greatest at for certain, however, is self-control.  He has played one of the most important positions on the most important MLB team in the largest media market for almost 20 years without ever being involved in a scandal or hardly even a public disagreement.  That is truly remarkable.  I’m sure he has faults and that much of his persona has been cultivated the way many athletes try to do, but the fact is Jeter succeeded like no one else has.  Call it natural sincerity or innate smoothness, Jeter has it.

I could listen to Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez say exactly the same words and I have no doubt that they would be more meaningful coming from Jeter.  Therefore, I can certainly envision Jeter becoming involved in baseball management (or ownership) in the years to come, and perhaps even broadcasting although I think that is much less likely.  Will NYY try to tie him up with a services contract?  I’m guessing that he wants more responsibility than the Steinbrenners will give him which leads to the very interesting thought of Derek Jeter becoming the face of another MLB franchise.  Can you picture him as the owner of TBR where he lives in the off-season?  Or even more interesting, NYM?

Each of these stories will play-out over many years, but that just assures that I will have to continue to write about NYY and its stars, both during and after their careers.  As a writer, I guess I should be thankful for the endless supply of material.

January 24, 2014

NYY Looks to The Rising Sun To Replace Its Prodigal Son, but will it matter?

To date, I have intentionally avoided commenting on the arbitrator’s ruling affirming but reducing Alex Rodriguez’s suspension by MLB.  As an attorney, I appreciate that the order is not final until Rodriguez exhausts his legal remedies by challenging the alternative dispute resolution process in the official court system.  His chance of success there is slim, but I have seen enough unexpected rulings in my career that I will not foreclose the possibility of his prevailing and therefore will follow the sage advice of Yogi Berra and wait “until it is over” to comment further on the actions of NYY’s erstwhile third baseman.

However, I will not wait to comment on the Bros. Steinbrenner’s actions this week that would make their father proud.  NYY spent $175 million to sign the latest rising star from the land of the Rising Sun, Masahiro Tanaka.  From today’s perspective, after the arbitrator’s ruling, it is tempting to argue that the $22.1 million NYY saved in Rodriguez’s 2014 salary enabled them to sign Tanaka (his 2014 salary is $22.1 million).  However, the total dollars committed to the Tanaka transaction and the likelihood that a large portion of Rodriguez’s remaining $61 million in salary owed by NYY will have to be paid (not to mention the signings of Ellsbury, McCann and Beltran), simply reveal that Hank and Hal Steinbrenner realized that they could not hold the line on their payroll to get below the luxury tax threshold and still face the New York fans and media.  One year out of the post-season and the prospect of many more to come simply was not tolerable to them even with their father not around to remind them to win at all costs.

But whether signing a 25-year old pitcher who has never pitched an inning in MLB was wiser than re-signing your best player of the past 5 years remains to be seen.  And who is going to play third base or second base?  And is it likely that 2 late 30-somethings coming off major injuries will be able to man the difficult shortstop and first base positions for an entire season?  And how does Joe Girardi deploy 6 outfielders and keep them all happy?

Still many, many questions to be answered on the field, but off the field we can now say that NYY is still NYY.  At least some things in life can be counted on not to change, even when the new generation of Steinbrenners insisted that it would.

January 6, 2014

Internet Baseball Writers Association of America Selects 4 for Hall of Fame recognition

The IBWAA announced on Monday that its members had selected Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas and Craig Biggio to its Hall of Fame, joining previously elected Mike Piazza.  http://www.ibwaa.com.

December 31, 2013

Which of MLB’s former stars will really have a Happy New Year?

It is the last day of 2013 but my guess is that for about a dozen former baseball stars tonight’s New Year’s celebration will be put on hold for a week.  On January 8 the Baseball Writers Association of America will announce the results of its annual Hall of Fame election.  As we all know, a player who has been retired from baseball for at least five years and who is named on at least 75% of the ballots cast obtains baseball immortality.  It has always been something of a political process, but nothing like we witnessed last January when the voters pitched a shutout for the first time in seventeen years despite the eligibility of players holding some of baseball’s most cherished records and those surpassing milestones that previously signaled certain entry into the Hall.  Many in that group are anxiously awaiting next Thursday’s announcement, I’m sure.

This year the discussion has been focused more on whether Greg Maddux should become the first unanimous selection rather than whether Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and others should be elected despite suspected use of PED’s.  Either way, it appears certain that someone (and probably more than one someone) who played during the time of PED’s will be enshrined in Cooperstown next July along with the era’s dominant managers Joe Torre, Tony La Russa and Bobby Cox.

I gave my complete explanation last January as to why I hypothetically supported Bonds and Clemens for election (and it certainly wasn’t because I like them).    http://babesbaseball.com/2013/01/09/fame-fortune-fallen-fractured-failure-2013-hof-vote-gets-an-f/.  This year I actually get to cast a ballot of my own as a member of the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America which started its own vote a few years ago.  (www.ibwaa.com).  For the record, here is my ballot in alphabetical order.  There was a limit of ten votes and I used all ten.

Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Tom Glavin, Jeff Kent, Barry Larkin, Greg Maddux, Jack Morris, Frank Thomas.

Astute readers will wonder about the vote for Barry Larkin.  Yes, he was elected by the BBWAA in 2012, but he has yet to obtain the required 75% in the IBWAA balloting.  Also, Mike Piazza was elected by the IBWAA voters last year when the BBWAA rejected everyone.

My ballot doesn’t actually count toward Cooperstown, of course.  Nevertheless, I would like to think that revealing it today could provide a little bit of New Year’s cheer for these 10 players who provided me with so many great baseball moments over the past 20 years, even many that made me very upset.  That’s why we love sports – it provides us heroes to worship and villains to hate.  I’d say my ballot is split about evenly.

December 23, 2013

The New Big Tex?

Earlier this year there was quite a controversy in Arlington as the Texas Rangers announced that Jon Daniels’ title had been enhanced from general manager to president for baseball operations.  The current “president” of the Rangers’ organization, Nolan Ryan, seemed to be totally unaware that such a move was to be made.  He remained notably silent for several days, despite intense media speculation about his reaction, before finally announcing that he would remain with the Rangers organization.  That proved to be true, of course, only through the end of the season.  The Rangers’ players barely made it to the parking lot after losing game 163 to TBR before Nolan announced he was resigning without any new position in mind.

So why would the Rangers’ ownership so publicly chose a 35-year Jewish kid from Queens who never played the game over one of the most iconic pitchers (and Texans) in MLB history?  Both Daniels and Ryan had been present during the Rangers’ rise from MLB door-mat to one of its winningest franchises, including back-to-back AL pennants.  Perhaps most surprising about this emergence from 50 years of futility was the success (and swagger) of the Rangers’ pitching staff, a turnaround that was generally credited to Ryan’s famous work-ethic being imparted throughout the Rangers’ system.   Daniels had made some key trades (Josh Hamilton, Cliff Lee) and free agent signings (Adrian Beltre, Yu Darvish), but was he really the mastermind of those deals?

Well, now we know that Daniels very much knows how to make big trades and sign big free agent deals even if Big Tex is not in the office next him.  First he made a stunning deal even before the Thanksgiving holiday by trading Ian Kinsler for Prince Fielder AND $30 million in cash. (Dave Dombrowsky is no dummy, but does anyone doubt that the Rangers got the better of this deal?)  Now Daniels has apparently signed Shin-soo Choo to a 7 year, $130 million deal to play left field and bat lead-off.  (This signing is being widely reported but has not been officially announced or even acknowledged by Daniels).

Assuming the reports are true, can there be any doubt that the Rangers have “won the off-season.”  This MLB experts doesn’t think there is:  http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article/tex/richard-justice-signing-shin-soo-choo-vaults-rangers-to-top-of-american-league-mountain?ymd=20131221&content_id=66125018.    Does that mean they will be winners next October?  We all know that teams don’t win championships in the off-season, whether it is MLB signings in December or high school football signings in February (ask Mack Brown).  Nevertheless, I will be very tempted to pencil in TEX when I make my AL West and AL pennant selections next March.  I have tried not to fall for the off-season hype in years past, and I’m starting early to remind myself again.  I wish I knew Nolan Ryan so I could ask him who he is picking, but he might be a tad sensitive about discussing his former team and the actions of the new sheriff in Arlington.

December 7, 2013

Yankee Restraint?

Yesterday I remarked on how Steinbrenner, Levine, Cashman, et al., were being applauded by most experts for not being suckered into matching SEA’s 10-year deal with Robinson Cano.  I whole-heartedly agreed with that sentiment, while at the same time questioning whether NYY was really exercising restraint or simply reallocating resources – from the infield to the outfield.  I was thinking of centerfield and the very questionable $153 million deal with Jacoby Ellsbury.   However, I woke up this morning to find that there has been an even greater shift in payroll in the Bronx.  Another $45 million has landed in the pockets of Carlos Beltran, presumably to be carried with him from the Yankees’ dugout to right field most games.  This move seems like a knee-jerk to me, and possibly a head-smacker.

NYY has now spent $200 million on centerfield and right field this off-season when those were arguably the only two positions that they had covered with Brett Gardner and Ichiro.  In addition, they already had Alfonso Soriano and Vernon Wells.  If you are counting, that’s now six outfielders for Joe Girardi to choose from.  In contrast, they have lost their second baseman and may lose their 3rd baseman and may not get their shortstop and first baseman back – at least not at 100%.  What’s a manager to do about that? They did sign Kelly Johnson, who is a nice utility guy who can play all infield positions – but not at the same time. Perhaps Cashman knows his pitching staff is so shaky that he will suggest that Girardi play his infield way back, as in the outfield.  Manager shifts are getting more extreme these days.

Baseball purists know that you have to be “strong up the middle,” and certainly the signing of McCann to catch is an upgrade, but I seriously question the wisdom of the Ellsbury and Beltran deals.  I don’t see the magnitude of performance difference between Gardner and Ellsbury that is reflected in their contracts.  I also wonder whether Beltran is due for a break-down, either due to age or return to NYC (he wasn’t nearly as good for the Mets as he was for STL).  Therefore, I believe the money spent on Ellsbury and Beltran would have been better spent on pitching.  Perhaps Cashman just doesn’t think there is good enough pitching available on the free agent market – except from Japan and Korea – or perhaps he is expecting to have even more funds available when Alex Rodriguez’s suspension is upheld.  Either way, these two deals still strike me as aimed at showing that the Yankees are still the Yankees (unrestrained spending) rather than representing savvy roster moves.

December 6, 2013

En Fuego Stove League!

I intended to write a final post reflecting on the 2013 season, but there is a point where recent events are no longer “news” and not yet “history.”  The 2013 MLB season clearly falls into that crack.  It is not news because any baseball fan today is talking about the Hot Stove, not the World Series.  It is not yet historic because we don’t have the perspective of another 10 or 5 or even 3 seasons.  If it happens that BOS wins another championship or 2 or 3 during any of those spans of years, then we will know that 2013 was part of a Red Sox dynastic period.

As if that thought alone was not enough to make NYY fans shiver in the wintry cold, they must at the same time deal with the scorching heat of the 2013 Hot Stove League which is, as Dan Patrick would say, “en fuego.”   Perhaps most Yankee fans don’t feel completely burned by today’s news that Robinson Cano will be wearing teal next year rather than pinstripes. (Most commentators are applauding the Yankees’ restraint – just think about that for a minute!)  However, the realization that a lifelong NYY superstar, and the obvious lynchpin of the roster for the foreseeable future, decided to leave Yankee Stadium to commit to playing the next 10 years of his career in Seattle should certainly cause some burning in the Bronx.

And that is just one story line in a plethora of roster moves teams have made even before the Winter Meetings have begun.  Sorry BOS, but your 2013 World Championship is so yesterday (as is your relationship with Jacoby Ellsbury – did someone say something about Yankee restraint?).  There are so many transactions to discuss that I have to turn my attention to next season and  we will just have to wait to see whether the 2013 actual season or the off-season proves to be the most meaningful.

However, just so we have a historical record to review in the future, I have compiled all my notes from the beginning of the pennant race through to the awards ceremonies (including a new picture of our Royal B.A.B.E. and her proud parents).  This now appears in the Recent Posts column as MLB 2013 RIP.  I hope you will at least take a few minutes to review what was a truly exciting post-season.   Whether it is regular season, post-season or off-season, there is no doubt that baseball remains sport’s greatest game.

(JSR- 2013)

Still Remembering Rocky and Believing in Spring

March 14, 2014

Greetings from Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the weather is Spring-like but the sports are all of the Winter variety.  Even on the ski slopes, however, the icons of MLB remain constant.  My official B.A.B.E.S. visual survey recorded numerous skiers wearing NYY and BOS caps despite the fact that those cities are each over 2,000 miles away.  There were also many people sporting TEX hats, but that is to be expected when over 90% of the skiers are from Texas.  The only HOU hat to be seen was on my head, a historical artifact from the ancient time of the now extinct Killer B’s.

Of course, I would have rather been in AZ or FL watching Cactus or Grapefruit League games, but exhibition baseball is not my family’s idea of a Spring Break vacation – or any vacation, unfortunately, even if the games aren’t exhibitions.  So I was content to enjoy the beautiful scenery, be thankful that I still remember how to ski after a long hiatus (kids!), and begin to ponder my B.A.B.E.S. picks for the 2014 MLB season.  That annual Spring task, of course, reminded me of B.A.B.E.S. c0-founder, James “Rocky” Walker, who passed away during Spring Training two years ago.  The memory of our annual Spring selection luncheon was made even stronger this year since I am in his adopted hometown where he spent his retirement days.

I know that if Rocky were still with us he would enjoy talking about the upcoming season, comment on how every team was currently tied for first and encourage me not to be embarrassed by the fact that all 3 of my children finished ahead me in the 2013 competition.  He would probably also remind me that I am and forever will be a B.A.B.E.S. champion (I won the inaugural competition in 2008 when it included just me, Rocky and Steve Jacobs).  As I have written here before, Rocky lived his life as if it were always Spring Training, always optimistic about the future.  http://babesbaseball.com/2012/03/20/remembering-rocky/.  Therefore it is doubly appropriate that we all now compete for a trophy that bears his name and his nickname – the James L. Walker Award, a/k/a “The Rocky.”

So, consider this your two-week warning for submission of your 19 selections. http://babesbaseball.com/membershipcompetition/.  We have several new Society members this year and perhaps the “Rocky” will once again be claimed by a rookie.  (Another round of congratulations to 2013 champion Jeff Hamilton who won in his first year.)  Deadline for submissions this year will be March 30, the day before the domestic opener.  As I wrote on the homepage a few days ago, we won’t consider the opening games being played in Autumn in Australia as the legitimate start to MLB 2014. http://babesbaseball.com/.