Reading My Future Through MLB’s Past

If there is any tradition I enjoy as much as spending a summer evening at a major league ballpark watching a baseball game, it must be that of spending a summer day at the beach reading.  I have already enjoyed three evenings in MLB parks this summer (COL, SEA and ATL), and recently I spent some time at the beach visiting with family, playing tennis and, of course, reading. While there I managed to finish three books, each about baseball, and rediscovered that combining my favorite pastimes makes for an even better summer experience.  I also learned that the keen insight, realized dreams and fantastic imagination of these writers could not only enhance my love and respect for baseball and our country, but also rekindle my own dream (fantasy?) of making a mark on both.  If that thought piques your interest, please read on.

Beach morning.jpg

(Seaside, FL – 2019)

In addition to having a daily baseball experience, my annual goal in reading is to finish a book a week.  I try to alternate between fiction (usually classics or certain favorite contemporary authors) and non-fiction (history, theology, biographies or memoirs – a recent focus).  It is a bonus if I can find a work in one of these categories that focuses on baseball.  Well, it just so happened that two books centered around baseball that fit my non-fiction sub-categories – history and memoir – were published this summer. The history book traces the century-and-a-half evolution of “urban community” in our nation through the development of MLB ballparks (Ballpark – Baseball in the American City, by Paul Goldberger).  The memoir recounts a single professional life lived almost entirely in a MLB ballpark (For the Good of the Game, by MLB Commissioner Emeritus Bud Selig).

The Goldberger work was a gift to me from Mrs. Commissioner, who regular B.A.B.E.S. readers already know to be quite tolerant of my baseball addiction and who in our advancing years, I am discovering, is showing signs of actually joining the party. (The fact that she brought the book home to me from a visit to NYC could mean that she was merely offering thanks.)  I discovered Selig’s memoir on my own, on Audible, which you should try if you have not already. It is an interesting way to experience an author’s work and it fits neatly into our 21st Century lifestyle. (Apple Car Play and AirPods!)

I usually visit and support the local independent bookstore at the beach, Sundog Books, even while reading other works, and thus I stumbled upon a copy of a 1968 work of baseball fiction that I was familiar with but had never read, The Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh, Prop.  It is Robert Coover’s classic psychological tale and sociological study of the impact of games – particularly baseball – on our daily lives.  Coover brilliantly depicted how easily we can blur the lines of reality between the two.  He also presciently forecast some innovative developments in baseball strategy almost 50 years before they actually occurred. Truly a worthy companion to the two new non-fiction works, and a slick completion to my beach reading triple play.

With all of this baseball filling my head at the same time that the MLB All-Star festivities were occurring, I had my own difficulty keeping the game separate from reality.  Of course, that is often the case and somewhat understandable since MLB and the media appear to have the same problem:  Is the HR Derby really baseball? Is the All-Star Game a real game, especially since it no longer “counts” to determine home field advantage in the World Series? From the three days of almost continuous coverage on both ESPN and Fox it is clear that we have all lost some perspective here, but of course the country seems to have lost it in so many areas these days. That fact was underscored for me when ESPN.com went so far as to post an article extolling A-Rod for his successful remaking of his image, when in fact ESPN itself has simply forced him on us.  I am extremely annoyed by that, just as I was disdainful of Rodriguez’s attempt to defend himself during the Bio-Genesis scandal in 2012-2013. https://wordpress.com/view/babesbaseball.wordpress.com.  Now that a network is doing his defense work for him, I am sorely tempted to start my own “firealexrodriguez.com” website as was once done to Joe Morgan. http://www.firejoemorgan.com/.  If I did, could history repeat itself?

https://www.businessinsider.com/joe-morgan-jon-miller-let-go-from-espns-sunday-night-baseball-team-2010-11.

Ok, this last thought might prove that I have lost my own perspective and am lost in fantasy land.  But actually, I have noticed some interesting “coincidences” in my life lately, leading me to wonder whether I am receiving some direction from above as I move into new phases, geographically and chronologically.   I disclosed in my last post that we got a jump on the “empty nest” phase and moved into an urban high rise hotel/condominium project last year, even though we have one child still at home.  Since then Mrs. Commissioner and I have become actively involved in urban planning for our new – and we expect our last – neighborhood. Also, as I have written before, I have worked for several years on the development of a downtown ballpark – MLB or MilB – something that would fulfill about every dream I have ever had as a kid, a professional, an urbanite and a baseball fan.  This project is always in the back of my mind and now informs all that I do as a downtown resident and much that I am contemplating as a local professional who is beginning to think of his legacy in his adopted hometown.

Was it a coincidence, then, that two major publishing houses released works in the same month detailing how 1) a ballpark can create, restore or even destroy a community, and 2) how the game of baseball can fulfill the American dream of a young, unwitting entrepreneur and in the process allow him to change the game and perhaps the nation forever – all from a backwater (or at least beside-the-water) town in the upper Mid-West?  Or 3) that I would come across these two works as well as a classic work of baseball fantasy all when I have an opportunity and desire to read, study and perhaps apply them to my own life?

What would Robert Coover say about these events? Is Robert Coover really Thomas Pynchon, or one incarnation of him?  https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/nnqkxz/who-is-thomas-pynchon-and-why-did-he-take-off-with-my-life-198.  Some have suggested that Pynchon is really J. D. Salinger, who is an unlikely central character in Shoeless Joe, the essential plot element of which, of course, is the expectant building of a ball field. Seeing the connections? Are they mere coincidences? Or perhaps self-generated images (“SGI’s?) of my personal dreams and fantasy?  Or maybe this is just the effects of three really good books that got me to thinking?  So much to ponder.  So much to discuss.

Goldberger.jpg

So, let’s start with Paul Goldberger, a truly gifted architecture critic whose work I have enjoyed reading since I first discovered him while living in Dallas in the mid-1980’s.  https://www.paulgoldberger.com/biography/.  Over thirty years later I can still recall his advice to those who were rushing to develop downtown Dallas:  when you are striving to make a beautiful urban tapestry, you can’t just focus on the icons and completely ignore the fabric.  If you have visited Dallas anytime in the past thirty years, you know that he was totally right and mostly ignored.  He brings this same sense of context and eye toward history – past and future – to his work on America’s major league baseball parks and their place in America’s cities.   Here is just one example, from the Prologue:

The baseball park is a metaphor for the joining together of rural and urban. It can be thought of as a place where the field represents the Jeffersonian ideal of the rural landscape stretching out indefinitely while the structure of the grandstands and the clubhouses that surrounds and encloses it represents the Hamiltonian vision of American industry and urban vitality….The infield is the urban world of straight lines, rigid dimensions and frequent action; the outfield is the rural world of open, easy, sprawling land, quiet but for the occasional moment of activity.  For the game to succeed, the two worlds have to work in harmony.  In the ballpark, the urban and the rural worlds become one.

He had me at “metaphor.”  Here is a guy who not only understands that “baseball is life,” but that “the ballpark is civilization,” or at least American civilization.  He proves this by identifying four eras in ballpark construction that mirror the evolution of “community” in our nation.  The first era lasted nearly a century and is the hallmark of the ballpark as a “park” – a place in an urban environment that provides city dwellers a pastoral respite from the confines of the city, but without having to leave the city (a crucial element).  Most commentators believe that this era ended with the abandonment of the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field in 1958, when the Giants and Dodgers decamped to essentially sub-urban stadiums in San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively.  Fortunately, the original concept of the urban ballpark was not totally lost forever since we have still today the living examples of Fenway Park and Wrigley Field (the “Friendly” Confines).

Goldberger is thankful for these preserved treasures, but yet laments the loss of the New York ballparks as well as other urban gems in Detroit, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.  These last two cities were part of the second era in stadium construction which Goldberger calls the Age of the Concrete Doughnuts.  Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, along with Cincinnati, St. Louis and Atlanta, each constructed circular concrete stadiums that reflected the vision that modern uniformity and suburban automotive convenience was desirable over neighborhood-dictated, industrial revolution inspired, iron and steel diversity, served primarily by public transportation.  Not surprisingly, this change of view mirrored the population flight from urban communities and the increased transience of our citizens in the post-war era.  Teams not only changed styles of ballparks, they changed cities and regions of the country, abandoning any sense of permanence or devotion to the past or a community. But fortunately, again, that wasn’t the end of the story.  As Goldberger observes:

We can see through baseball parks how Americans went from viewing their cities as central to the idea of community in the first decades of the twentieth century to wanting to run away from them in the decades after World War II, and then how we have tried in our own time to use baseball parks to get our cities back.

That effort began in 1992 with the opening of Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, an event that George Will called “one of the three most important things that have happened in baseball since the Second World War” – on a par with Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier and the players’ association breaking the reserve clause.  The architecture critic for the Baltimore Sun, Edward Gunts, wrote that Oriole Park “holds more lessons for combining sports and cities than the past five decades’ worth of cookie-cutter stadiums….”  He predicted that it would “influence the way major-league sports facilities are designed from now on.”

Will’s observations may sound like hyperbole, but Gunts’ have undoubtedly been proven correct.  Oriole Park not only reinvigorated Baltimore’s inner harbor area but ignited an urban baseball renewal and ushered in what Goldberger describes as the Retro Era and Commissioner Selig calls in his memoir the Golden Age of Ballparks.

Since 1992, twenty other cities (and teams) have built twenty-two new ballparks generally in the image of Camden Yards. (ATL and TEX have each built two!)  Sixteen of these parks have been located essentially in downtown proper and have contributed (with varying degrees of success) to the return of urban vitality.  The impact has been such that no longer is the discussion of financing new stadiums solely about the use of public funds to benefit private businesses, but whether the ballpark is truly a contributor to the city’s overall economic development as well as its sense of community and civic pride.  The answers are still unclear and the issue remains controversial, but the debate is now on a more level playing field (so to speak).

The relationship between ballparks and financing has always been a fundamental one, but perhaps never more so than today when the cost of a new stadium often exceeds $1 billion.  But as history has shown in Milwaukee, Atlanta and even Tampa, whoever can provide the financing (or capital) to build a stadium will undoubtedly get a team, even one from its own city.  That is what happened in Atlanta where the commissioners of Cobb County north of downtown facilitated a P3 development (Public/Private Partnership) to build essentially a new city centered around a new park.  This drew the Braves away from Turner Field in downtown Atlanta even though that park was barely twenty years old.  The fear of an opposite move by the Rangers, from suburban Arlington into downtown Dallas, caused the Arlington government to agree to a similar joint mega-development – complete with a new retractable roof stadium – only 25 years after the nearly beautiful Ballpark in Arlington opened in 1994.  Goldberger describes these two new projects as the beginning of the fourth era of ballpark construction, the “Ballpark as Theme Park,” where the park is used to create a community rather than enhance one.  Disneyland immediately comes to mind, and it remains to be seen whether this Hollywood approach can be as meaningful for community development as could one focused truly on urban renewal.

The Battery.jpg

(WAS@ATL, SunTrust Park, 7/18/19)  (This catwalk connects the park to The Battery  shopping mall and office complex.)

I can say with pride (and do) that I have never been to Disneyland (or Disney World), but I have to admit that my initial impression of SunTrust Park at the Battery (it sounds like a real estate development, doesn’t it?) was actually positive, and that the experience was certainly as enjoyable and probably more so than previous games attended at Turner Field or Fulton County Stadium.  However, this may have as much to do with the fact that downtown Atlanta has so many other design issues that a ballpark was never going to be able to overcome them all. Starting from scratch in north Atlanta was at least a rational alternative approach.  We will see how the idea works there, as well as in Arlington, Texas, which, if you have ever been there, you know has essentially been one giant amusement park since the Rangers moved to Turnpike Stadium almost 50 years ago.  When the new Globe Life Field opens in 2020, three MLB parks will have been located in about a five city block area for over fifty years, yet no urban identity, real or imagined, has developed. It seems unlikely that this new effort will bring about a different result, and Goldberger is clearly not sold on the concept, as this is how he concludes his book:

…the greatest joy a ballpark can bring us is when it is embedded in the real city, with all the energy, diversity, and dynamism a city can display at its best, and the exhilaration the baseball park offers becomes not only a celebration of sport, but of the whole of urban life.

 

Regardless of whether the ballpark was downtown or in the suburbs, the arrival of a major league team was a dream-come-true for Bud Selig.  He was nineteen when the Boston Braves relocated to Milwaukee in 1953, due in large part to the presence of a new ballpark there.  County Stadium had been completed the year before as the nation’s very first publicly financed ballpark.  It was built outside of downtown and without a commitment for a team relocation or the grant of an expansion franchise, proving even before Ray Kinsella was born that “if you build it, they will come.”  (The same was true for Atlanta and Tampa/St. Petersburg, the two other times a stadium was built on speculation.)  In Milwaukee’s case,  the “they” that came included a franchise, its players and a lot of fans.   In the first year of play the Braves set a National League record for attendance, 1.8 million, and County Stadium obtained a measure of sports immortality when it appeared on the cover of the inaugural issue of Sports Illustrated on August 16, 1954, apparently because of the large crowds that were attending games there.

Sportsillustrated_firstissue.jpg

(Photo by Mark Kauffman, https://www.si.com/si-vault/2017/08/16/first-issue-1954-10-things-didnt-know).  I am struck by the similarity of this design to current Retro Era parks, including what appear to be luxury boxes tucked under the second deck.  Even the posts supporting the roof and upper deck appear in a one of the newer generation parks, the Ballpark in Arlington.  Goldberger agrees with me:  “(County Stadium’s) modesty and understatement made it seem in some ways more like the old urban ballparks that it followed than the new suburban ballparks that it prefigured.”  Obviously, the Milwaukee fans liked it, at least to start, and apparently so did the players.

In just the fifth season in Milwaukee, the Braves won the 1957 World Series against the Yankees and then repeated as American League champions but lost the rematch against the Yankees in the 1958 Series.  The team was at the top of the league in attendance from 1953-1957, until the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles and started play in the huge Coliseum (capacity over 90,000 for baseball).

By any measure, the Milwaukee Braves were a remarkable success and the young Bud Selig was enraptured by them even as he was away at college in Madison and then as he returned home to work for his father’s car dealerships (a job he did not covet but which was made more bearable by the Braves’ presence in Milwaukee).  The job did have certain perquisites, most notably opening the door for Bud to meet many of the Braves players as his father supplied the stars with cars. One important acquaintance he made that grew into an unlikely enduring friendship was with a young African-American slugger from Alabama named Hank Aaron, who at only 23 led the Braves in the 1957 World Series with a .393 average, eleven hits, three home runs and seven runs batted in.  Of course, his next twenty years in the league were pretty good, too.

https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/a/aaronha01.shtml.

Yet, despite all of this success on the field and in the stands, the Braves would be gone from Milwaukee by 1965.  Selig, who by then was an established presence in the Milwaukee business community as well as at the ballpark, tried desperately (over his father’s criticism) to keep the team in his city. But attendance had declined quickly after the pennant winning years and the club owner Bill Bartholomay could not resist the opportunity to move to Atlanta, Fulton County – a city and county that had worked together to build a new stadium (a concrete doughnut) to entice a team just as Milwaukee had done barely over a decade earlier.  He was also enamored of opening the southern market for MLB and of exploring new television opportunities with a  start-up cable television station owned by a young entrepreneur named Ted Turner.  Selig organized a community effort to buy the team, gathering civic support from politicians and financial commitments from several business leaders, but Bartholmay refused their offer and moved the Braves south.   What goes around, comes around.  Or more accurately, what comes, goes.

The experience was personally devastating to Selig, but rather than admit defeat he set about immediately to obtain a new team for his hometown as the head of a new civic partnership.  He moved his office into County Stadium and began the recovery effort by convincing the Chicago White Sox to play parts of several seasons at County Stadium. He almost persuaded owner Arthur Allyn to move the team there permanently, but failed. He then tried to convince Major League baseball to award Milwaukee an expansion franchise in 1968 but it was by-passed in favor of Kansas City (another town that had lost its team when the A’s moved to Oakland in 1967 after only twelve years in Missouri), and Seattle which was viewed as an important addition to the new grouping of teams on the West Coast.

Fortunately for Bud and for Milwaukee, the citizens of Seattle did not consider major league baseball to be as important to them as MLB thought Seattle was to it.  The team averaged barely 8,000 fans per game (although that was 20th out of 24 teams), and the team’s expansion ownership group quickly suffered buyer’s remorse and refused to invest additional capital.  Selig and his financial supporters bought the team out of a bankruptcy proceeding after the first season.  The purchase price was $10.8 million, the highest price ever paid for a team (and nearly $1 million more than George Steinbrenner would pay for the Yankees four years later!), but Milwaukee had a major league baseball team again. It was named the “Brewers” in honor of the city’s long-time minor league team and, of course, the city’s brewing heritage.  Miraculously, at least in his eyes, the 35-year old Bug Selig was in charge of the whole operation.  Dreams do come true.

In fact, sometimes you can’t even dream the glorious things that are going to happen to you.  Forty-seven years after heading the group that bought an MLB team, on the night he was inducted into the Hall of Fame for serving as Commissioner of Baseball for twenty-two of those years, Selig would stand on a street corner in Cooperstown with fellow Hall of Famer Hank Aaron and hear Aaron wonder aloud about who could have ever guessed that either of them would become baseball immortals, let alone both of them.  Of course the story is more fantastical as to Selig than Aaron, and Selig tells the anecdote with a measure of humility that is present in most of his writing.

It is difficult to be objective in analyzing, or to sound humble when recounting, one’s accomplishments in a memoir, but I believe Selig not only comes across as accurate and sincere but that he actually is astounded and humbled by all that has occurred to him and through him in the world of baseball.  I don’t just say this now in honor of his memoir or in hindsight review of his now established legacy.  I formulated these thoughts and expressed them here over five years ago in two separate posts:

https://babesbaseball.wordpress.com/2012/12/13/love-your-enemies-part-2-marvin-miller-and-bud-selig/.

https://babesbaseball.wordpress.com/2014/10/21/hey-bud-this-series-is-for-you/.

Although at first grudgingly, I ultimately willingly credited Selig with major innovations in the game as well as the business of baseball, all of which fostered the development of a more competitive product.  Selig asserts that he was the first person in his generation of owners to grasp fully that baseball is a business and that the health of the business is directly connected to the competitive product on the field.  He may slightly overstate his “unique” perspective, but during the course of his tenure as an owner and the commissioner there were undeniably innovative decisions made that benefited all MLB owners and players financially, and therefore, the game itself.

Selig also understood the connection between a city and its team and worked to ensure that other fans did not experience the temporary loss that he and his fellow Milwaukee citizens suffered when the Braves moved to Atlanta (or the enduring loss suffered by the fans in Brooklyn).  From the time he became owner of the Brewers in 1970 and gained a vote on relocation, through the end of his tenure as Commissioner in January, 2015, only two MLB teams changed cities – the Senators moved to Texas in 1972 to become the Rangers and the Expos moved to Washington in 2004 to become the Nationals.  Of course, significant pressure was put on many cities to build new ballparks in order to retain their teams – including Selig’s hometown of Milwaukee – but in every instance but these two a deal was made and continuity (and community) was preserved.  In contrast, during this same period ten NFL and eleven NBA franchises relocated, and some more than once.  In the popularity competition between major sports leagues, this expression of loyalty (and stability) should get more attention, and Selig should get more credit. Of course, the fact that total annual attendance at MLB games is almost double that of the NFL and NBA combined indicates something about the fans’ appreciation and sporting preferences.  I had some thoughts about this back in 2012.  https://babesbaseball.wordpress.com/2012/11/.

I believe Selig’s success was (and MLB’s is) rooted in his understanding of the need for balance between forces.  There needed to be balance in the collective bargaining between the owners and the players, and that required ownership to become as unified as the players association had been for over twenty years. This, of course, took a historic strike to work out – canceling the 1994 World Series in the process – but it finally began the leveling process in negotiations with the players’ representatives (began, not accomplished, as Selig points out).  That leveling of forces has resulted in over 25 years of peace and prosperity for both labor and management.

There needed to be competitive balance on the field and that required a measure of financial balance in the teams’ respective bank accounts.  This caused a fight among the owners that was in some ways even harder for Selig than his struggle with Don Fehr, the architect of the 1994 players’ strike.  Ultimately Selig’s view prevailed with the owners and revenue sharing became an essential MLB operating tenet, one that has clearly been good for the game. And there needed to be balance in the financial discussions with cities about new ballparks, and this required new sources of revenue that could enable the teams to contribute to the projects.  Selig was instrumental in exploiting these sources with new media ventures (like MLB At Bat, an awesome innovation), increased geographic exposure and expanded post-seasons, and thus most of the markets have successfully found a way to finance new ballparks, with or without direct capital contributions from the teams.

The resolution of these issues required Selig to overcome enormous resistance from the players union, owners, government officials, sports writers and, of course, the fans.  But his belief that he was right as a businessman, a civic leader and a sportsman kept him going.  And, as he says, it was seldom fun.  That statement, like many others he makes, rings true.  Even his unapologetic defense of the league’s slow response to PED use by players is credible – he says that the players union was the delaying influence in this scandal.  This issue remains the basis of the most enduring criticism of his tenure and it is hard to say for certain whether Selig and the owners did enough to combat the union’s intransigence on drug testing.  Either way, I do not believe it is a sufficient reason to neglect all of the other work he did for the game. Also, in that and all other struggles, I am inclined to believe that he really tried to make every decision “for the good of the game,” as the title of his memoir suggests.

The current state of the game strongly suggests that Selig  himself was good for the game in almost every area.  As with his tireless effort to recover MLB baseball for the city of Milwaukee, he should also get credit for two decades of work that have benefited all of the owners and the players.  I expressed this back in 2013 and 2014, and I am pleased to see that in structuring his memoir he appears to have evaluated the accomplishments of his tenure in the same fashion as I did.  He even acknowledges, as I argued in 2013, that his long-time adversary Marvin Miller deserves to be in the Hall of Fame for the impact he had on the game during his sixteen years as Director of the Players Association, a magnanimous concession that most of the owners have been unwilling to make.  As unlikely as it appeared in 1970 when he backed into MLB ownership through the greed of one ownership group and penuriousness of another, Bud Selig earned his way to Cooperstown through a career that lasted nearly three times as long as Miller’s and had at least as much impact on the game, and probably more.  Such a life may have once been just the fantasy of an immigrant’s son who grew up in the Mid-West and started his career in the car sales business, but like many American dreams it became a reality.

Selig HOF.jpg

(National Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, NY)

 

What is fantasy and what is reality is never completely clear in Robert Coover’s Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh, prop., for the reader or for J. Henry Waugh.  Is Waugh a lonely, trashy third-rate accountant with a sociopath’s obsession for games? Or is he a statistical genius with a flare for the application of random probabilities to the structure of established societal forms, either sporting or even military?  What are we to make of his talent for numerical analysis that is so keen that he can apply it to war games with such a coldly lethal precision that even his fellow gamers are unnerved? (Coover didn’t invent Game Theory, but he certainly understands it.)

In case you have no idea what I am talking about, here is the plot of the book:

Waugh is a loner working for a small accounting firm in an unnamed city.  He has never married and his only pleasure in life (aside from his local bar and its resident hooker) is derived from the games he creates based on the random outcomes of the roll of dice (one die, two dice, even three dice – each level increases the statistical odds and the gaming possibilities).  The book focuses on only one of Waugh’s several incarnations of this obsession – a baseball game he has invented from the application of baseball’s rules and traditional strategies to the statistical probabilities of the roll of the dice.  It is, in the abstract, ingenious;  but Waugh has taken it beyond the abstract and envisioned an entire league of his own creation – with a forward-thinking commissioner and eight teams with old-school managers and colorful players and rabid fans.  Waugh has given the league, the Universal Baseball Association or “UBA,” complete historical statistics and detailed player biographies, all maintained and created (imagined) by J. Henry Waugh, proprietor.  (And dare I mention as examples of Waugh’s imagination that the UBA’s history includes two deaths on the field and at least one rape in the dugout?)

UBA.jpg

Every night at his kitchen table, and even some days at his office desk, Waugh plays games with his dice and his statistical tables and records the results just as if he were sitting in the stands of a MLB game with his scorebook.  Well, actually, he would be sitting in both dugouts as the manager of both teams, making all the decisions about who starts and who substitutes in, decisions based on prior historical performance, or the absence of such in the case of a rookie, all determined by the roll of the dice.  Seemingly no variable is left unaccounted for in the strategic playing of the game or the potential outcome.  Indeed, Waugh’s accounting for the variables of baseball appears more like today’s analytics than 1968’s traditions:

In adjoining rooms, machinery, looking like big eyeless monsters conjured up from the depths, hummed and clicked, sucking up the information being fed to them from scorekeepers, scouts, official monitors, and even a set of special camera devices that McCaffree (the UBA commissioner, although Waugh calls him a “Chancellor”) had invented to time runners, spy out jittery fielders, register variations between what the catchers called for and what the pitchers really threw, a million different things.”

It is as if J. Henry Waugh invented baseball analytics in 1968!  How did he do that?  Or more accurately, how did Robert Coover cause him to do that?  And how did Robert Coover know that it would not necessarily be a good thing? He continues:

Made Woodrow Winthrop’s old head spin (he’s the former commissioner).  “You, see, given this shift and the fact that it seems to be out of our hands, some built-in flaw or gap which doesn’t allow us to cope with it directly,” Fenn (McCaffree, the current commissioner) continued, apparently speaking to Woody again, though still studying the TV sets, “it would almost be better for the whole league if the players were all incompetent and irrational.”

“Is that so?” said Woody.

“Mmm. The way things are going, we’re apt to get a pay-off nobody wants.”

That dialogue was imagined by Coover over fifty years ago.  Were there baseball purists then who were complaining about innovation in the game?  Perhaps the talk that caused the lowering of the mound height after The Year of the Pitcher in 1968?  Regardless, the same sentiment could have been expressed this evening on Baseball Tonight, and the opinion could have been spoken by the current (and real) MLB Commissioner, Rob Manfred.  These “million different things” that baseball front offices now track are causing many people to complain that “quants” are ruining the Game.  Personally, I disagree, and I think others would too if they would just think about the strategies that have always been at the heart of baseball.

I am not devoted to analytics; nor am I devoted to “old school” tactics.  I have always viewed both approaches as analytical and traditional, but that the modern version is  significantly more detailed and tends to focus on different causes of probable outcomes.  In fact, no one should deny that all strategy is based on some probability of outcome regardless of whether that probability is forecast by reams of computer data collected on a real-time basis or merely the “gut instinct” of a man with fifty years’ of experience in the sport.  And I believe that all of these probabilities being studied in MLB today, from either source, are just like the throw of the dice in the UBA. Have you ever thought about that?

No one likes to think of the outcome of an MLB game as being that random, or statistically predictable if you prefer the positive spin, but it is exactly that.  Everything about “real” baseball, even before Moneyball, (“He gets on base!”), was and still is based on statistics and probabilities.  Managers have always put the best hitters/runners at the top of the line-up and the weakest ones at the bottom because the top of the order bats more often and thus increases the probability of a batter getting on base and scoring runs.  The old-school righty/lefty match-up is based on statistics, the fact that most hitters fare better against a pitcher who throws from the opposite side from which he bats.  Why is that any different from putting your third baseman in right field against a hitter that statistics show hits 90% of his balls to the right side?  Or how is taking a starting pitcher out in the 5th inning, or not putting him in until the 2nd or 3rd, because statistics show that batters hit much better against him the third time through the order any different from making a pitching change for a lefty/righty match-up?  There is no difference.  Both are based on the same assumption – the desired outcome of getting outs and not allowing runs is more likely to be achieved by going with the statistical probabilities.  So it is not a question of whether analytics should be allowed in the game, it is merely a question of whether there can be so much allowed that it fundamentally alters the game, or more accurately, alters the fun of the game for the fans and perhaps even the players.  As Selig would say – we need to balance the interests.

It is possible that the use of analytics becomes so dominant as to essentially remove any sense of baseball being a “human” game.  I believe players play and fans watch the game to experience the humanity involved in seeing one player do his best against another player without undue outside influence (bad umpiring, for example) or crippling restraint (excessive rules). These competitions, under the right circumstances, enrich our lives as fans (why and how is for another post).  If we eliminate that human element, or limit is to an excessive extent, we eliminate the power and tension of the contest and the chance of enrichment.   However, how do we know which limitations on these million different things are appropriate?

We are all likely to agree that prohibiting a pitcher from throwing a curve ball to a hitter who simply can’t hit a curve ball would be an absurd rule, but yet Commissioner Manfred has talked openly of limiting the scope of defensive shifts, or eliminating them completely, thus prohibiting the defense from positioning itself in the spots where a batter is most likely to hit the ball.  Is there a difference?  I think not,  and neither does one of the greatest hitters of all-time, George Brett.  When asked recently on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball broadcast whether shifts should be disallowed, he essentially answered ‘Hell, no! Give me an open side of the infield and I”ll hit .400 every year!’

There is an old adage in football:  “take what the defense gives you.”  The corresponding baseball adage is “hit it where they ain’t.”  Current baseball hitters who are struggling with shifts should take note of both and make the necessary adjustments.  In short order the shifts will stop because the statistics will no longer support them.  It will take a little time and some effort on the part of the hitters, but professionals (like George Brett) should be able to adapt and we should let them try.  Indeed, I think MLB’s own current marketing slogan provides the appropriate response, or non-response, to this new development in the evolution of the game:  “just let the kid’s play.”

Still, there is a fine line in determining the appropriate level of freedom, and no one seems to know where that line is.  In fact, no one seems to know whether it is rational to limit the application of analytics or irrational not to.  Such uncertainty could easily result in an unfortunate overreaction.  (Are you following the new rules “test marketing” that MLB is subsidizing?  https://www.si.com/mlb/2019/07/25/baseball-rule-changes-atlantic-league.

Fenn McCaffree, Waugh’s forward-thinking current UBA commissioner, may have anticipated just this mistaken response back in 1968:

“What if, Woody (the former commissioner), we have passed, without knowing it, from a situation of sequential compounding into one of basic and finite yes-or-no survival, causing a shift of what you might call the equilibrium point, such that the old strategies, like winning ball games, sensible and proper within the old stochastic or recursive sets, are, under the new circumstances, insane!”

What a paragraph!  I wish I had written it, or even thought it.  I have now studied it for days and am still not certain that I know what McCaffree/Coover means.  However, I think I understand, and I think Coover would smile if you asked him if he is surprised to see that most MLB teams today are run by  young Ivy League geniuses.   Clearly they have moved baseball strategy beyond the “old stochastic and recursive sets” and caused a shift in the equilibrium to the point that some in baseball think we are looking at a question of basic survival of the game.  Have you been reading about the damage done to the game by the prevalence of the three true outcomes – strike out, walk and home run?  Here are a couple of resources:

https://sabr.org/research/growth-three-true-outcomes-usenet-joke-baseball-flashpoint.

https://unafraidshow.com/mlb-analytics-three-true-outcomes-killing-baseball/.

None of this would surprise Coover, in my opinion, but his astounding paragraph written fifty years ago says even more to me than just predicting the current “crisis” of baseball analytics.  It reminds me of something Faulkner would write, and even of something that he said:  that the only thing worth writing about is “the human heart in conflict with itself.”  Clearly Coover’s characters are in conflict with themselves – Waugh as well as his imagined league executives, mangers and ballplayers – just as the leaders of  MLB are in conflict over the state of the game.

But I believe the conflict Coover ultimately describes is the psychological realization that it makes sense to try to win baseball games, in either the old way or the new way, only to the extent that we have to try to do something, anything, with our lives. This becomes clear at the climax of the book (if you can call it that) which appears to occur a long time in the future (we aren’t told exactly how long, perhaps 100 years, or perhaps just 100 seasons of the UBA which Waugh could complete in a matter of months depending upon the intensity of his obsession).  A new player, Paul Trench, playing the part of an old player, Royce Ingram, is introduced into the story and Waugh is completely absent.  Trench is depicting the UBA Hall of Famer Royce Ingram as part of a festival celebration for UBA rookies that seems like MLB’s All-Star Futures Game.  Trench is the starting catcher, but he isn’t thrilled to be there.  In fact, he questions why he is playing the game at all, and not just this game, but any game. The reader is given this insight into his thoughts:

Why does he swing? Why does he run? Why does he suffer when out and rejoice when safe? Why is it better to win than to lose? … He wants to quit – but what does he mean, ‘quit’? The game? Life? Could you separate them?

Earlier in the story Waugh himself had recounted a similar inner conflict born out of his inability to understand his feelings about attending real MLB games (real in the book, at least), where he found himself often being a captive but bored spectator:

“…I would leave a game, elbowing out with all the others, and feel a kind of fear that I could so misuse my life, what was the matter with me, that I could spend unhappy hours at a ball park, leave, and yet come back again?”

In seeking to find his own answer from inside the foul lines, Trench/Ingram recalls a conversation with another player who observed:

“I don’t know if there is a record-keeper up there or not…but even if there weren’t, I think we’d have to play the game as though there were.”

At first Trench is skeptical and wonders responsively to himself:

‘Would we? Is that reason enough? Continuance for its own inscrutable sake?’  (“Inscrutable” is a perfect word choice by Coover. It means “impossible to understand or interpret.”)

But the game itself prevails on Trench as the catcher – the manager on the field – as soon as the umpire yells “Play ball!”

He flings the ball to second; then, impulsively, he walks out there, to the mound, not because it’s a rule of the game, but because he feels drawn… Paul tries to speak, but he can find no words. It’s terrible, he says; or might have said. It’s all there is. (FN 1)

And then suddenly Damon (the pitcher) sees, must see, because astonishingly he says: “Hey, wait, buddy! You love this game, don’t you?”

“Sure, but…”

Damon grins. Lights up the whole goddamn world.  “Then don’t be afraid…”

And the black clouds break up, and dew springs again to the green grass, and the stands hang on, and his own oppressed heart leaps alive to give it one last try.

There may be conflict and failure in Trench’s life, but there will also be persistence.  As Faulkner said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “I decline to accept the end of man…I believe that man will not merely endure, he will prevail…”

But prevail over what? And for what purpose?  Not just imaginary baseball players and real Nobel Laureates have asked this question or made an observation in response to it.  An actual member of the MLB Hall of Fame has weighed in as well:

“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”

Most people know Jackie Robinson’s most famous quote.  I accept his premise and strive to adhere to it, as have others, even those whose reputation suggested otherwise.  The public Faulkner, for example, was famous for not caring what anyone thought of him (he was called “Count No-Count” in his younger days in Oxford, MS), but later the private Faulkner was exceedingly generous with his extended family, providing totally for several members who were not able to provide for themselves.  Several of Faulkner’s created characters, for that matter, strive to help others even when it appears that it will, and ultimately does, harm them. (Quentin Compson, Bayard Sartoris – the one from Unvanquished, not Sartoris, and Gail Hightower, come to mind).  Personally, I believe that I have had some positive impact on the lives of those around me, both at home and the office, but I am not certain it has always done them (or me) good.  Either way, I always question whether I have done enough, and whether baseball or reading have contributed anything to my efforts, given that I have expended so much of my time and energy on both.

Jackie Robinson also said:  “Life is not a spectator sport. If you’re going to spend your whole life in the grandstand just watching what goes on, in my opinion you’re wasting your life.”  That sounds a bit harsh, especially for devoted baseball fans – although he probably did not mean them literally – or even avid readers.  But there is an element of truth in his observation no matter how you apply it.  And I think it is a thread that runs through Goldberger’s perception of the impact of baseball parks on communities across the nation, as well as Selig’s review of his own impact on the game itself and, finally, of Coover’s exploration of how we spend our days and our nights, and what we truly value at either time.

Are we really involved in what we are doing, and are we involving others, either known to us or strangers, in the process?  And if we are, is our involvement making a positive impact on those others and, by extension, our community? Or are we simply benefiting (or just amusing) ourselves, possibly even to the detriment of others?

As a lawyer for over thirty-five years, this inquiry (accusation?) is almost a parody of my professional existence:

Q: What’s the difference between a lawyer and a leech?
A: After you die, a leech stops sucking your blood.

And there is even some science  (analytics!) to support the joke:

https://www.csmonitor.com/1994/0215/15081.html..

Worse, the number of lawyers has increased dramatically since this study was published in 1994! http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/lawyer_population_15_higher_than_10_years_ago_new_aba_data_shows.

And, there is always Shakespeare: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”  (Henry VI, part 2; Act IV, Scene 2.)   That line, I believe, is actually a compliment to lawyers, but that is for another post.

Seriously, I have been asking these questions of myself more urgently lately as I consider what to do with the rest of my life.   They are applicable to any activity I engage in –  vocation or avocation – but my focus here is baseball and if you are reading my blog in the first place and are still reading this far into this post then you must be almost as focused on the sport as I am.  So perhaps you, like me, are interested in your own personal scorecard using these most profound analytics, each of which is explored in the three books I have reviewed.

It is not hard to conclude that I have wasted thousands of hours of my life watching baseball, thinking about baseball and, now, writing about baseball.  Worse, baseball has been, undoubtedly, the source of the greatest tension in my marriage.  It is hard for someone who loves you and believes that you love them to understand why you would prefer to spend 3 hours (or more) 162 nights/year (plus the post-season!) focused on your relationship with a game rather than your relationship with her.  It is a triumph of my wife’s understanding, not due to any concession from me, that she could with good humor give me this gift:

Note to Spouses.jpg

Honestly, I think there is only one way in which my baseball obsession has had a positive impact, and that is in my relationship with my son.  One of my daughters likes the sport more than he does and she and I text about the game regularly, but we have not shared it directly together like my son and I have.  Jack, frankly, doesn’t even like the sport. (FN2).  He prefers basketball.  But he must love me because he is still willing to drive thousands of miles around the country in support of my Quixotic venture to see a game with him in every MLB ballpark.  Along the way, he has grown to appreciate my obsession with the game, even if he has not acquired it.  He understands the game better, but mostly he understands its history of statistics and fan loyalty and shared experiences.  We are a part of that history now, which obviously includes one generation teaching the next generation the significance of the game.    We have also met other fans along the way and shared our venture, thus expanding geographically the sense of community that Goldberger writes of.

Miller Park.jpg

(MIA@MIL, Miller Park, 8/19/2015.)

This photo was taken by a retired Milwaukee truck driver who sold us two of his four season tickets, explaining that he convinced his wife to let him spend a significant part of his pension on Brewers’ tickets by promising to attend every game, thus being out of the house at least 81 days a year, and to sell two of them to each game, recouping some of the money and making him many new friends each season. (Once you get to the seats you are stuck with him for the next three hours!)  He is one of our favorite memories from our twenty ballpark trips so far.  Alas, we didn’t get his name or a picture because he left the seats early while we were at the concession stand.  Another of his traditions was to watch the end of the game from his favorite bar since MLB prohibits the sale of alcohol after the 7th inning!

It was great to learn that an MLB club could serve a local retiree in such a direct way, and there may have been many stories like his in the ballpark that day considering the giant scoreboard advertisement visible over Jack’s left shoulder.  That the AARP can be a major sponsor adds to Goldberger’s argument that a MLB ballpark is a civic amenity as well as a business generator.  Either way, our attendance reinforces the undeniable fact that baseball brings the generations together, both related and unrelated.  Time spent together in such a setting recalls the very first line in Goldberger’s ballpark book (he actually starts with “metaphor”!):

The Game of Baseball may not truly be the ultimate American metaphor – the attempts to make it so tend to be exaggerated, sentimental, and mawkish – but the baseball park, the expanse of green that begins beside city streets and appears to extend forever, is.

If there is anything in his book that I can affirm personally it is Goldberger’s assertion that the ballpark is as important as the game itself.  Even Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, a ballpark roundly condemned as a dinosaur from the Concrete Doughnut Era and made even worse by the renovation that is known as Mount Davis constructed in the outfield to lure the NFL’s Raiders back to Oakland from Los Angeles and which obscured the view of California’s Berkeley Hills, can still be considered beautiful from a baseball fan’s perspective:

OAK-Alameda.JPG

(SFO@OAK, Coliseum, 8/1/2017).

Jack and I enjoyed the game at the Coliseum as much as we did the one the next night at PacBell/SBC/AT&T/Oracle Park.  SFO’s universally praised home field has the advantage of its setting in the City’s China Basin, but both Jack and I were struck by how much better cared for the playing field was in Oakland.

SFO park.JPG

(OAK@SFO, AT&T Park, 8/2/2017).

Unexpectedly, Goldberger’s concept of rus en urbe (the “country in the city”) seemed better exemplified on the playing field in Oakland, as these two photos of the grass reveals.  However, the Oakland stadium sits in the middle of a giant parking lot beside a freeway and next to the now abandoned Oracle Arena (the NBA’s Warriors having continued that league’s legacy of disloyalty by moving across the bay from the Town to the City).  The Giants’ park is tucked into the City, literally by the Bay, and although we spent over an hour in afternoon traffic Ubering to the park from our hotel (also downtown) before the game, we were able to get back after the game in well under an hour by walking several blocks and catching the last cable car run for the evening.  We shared it with many other baseball fans and tourists, all of us happy in the community experience.  It reminded Jack of our midnight ride on the “L” back to our hotel off Michigan Avenue in Chicago after a two hour rain delay at Wrigley Field stretched the proclamation “Cubs win!” into the early morning hours.  These are enjoyable aspects of the urbe that do not exist in the rus, and that is Goldberger’s point.  Jack and I agree; we clearly prefer the urban parks.

Wrigleyville.jpg

(Addison Station, Wrigleyville, 8/18/2015, following DET@CHI).

Our experience in urban parks around the country, including some that are not even MLB parks (like the redeveloping Spokane Riverfront Park in Eastern Washington, https://my.spokanecity.org/riverfrontspokane/redevelopment/, or the one in our own backyard, https://hemisfair.org/). combined with my lifelong love of baseball reflected in these three fine books and intensified now by my realization that life is not that long, has me thinking that there must be a project here for me some way, somehow.  Although I am at the opposite end of my career today from where Bud Selig was in 1965, shouldn’t his triumphant quest for a MLB team in Milwaukee serve as inspiration for my dream of one in San Antonio?  And couldn’t a downtown baseball park serve as a new and needed icon on the tapestry that is San Antonio, which unlike Dallas has a wonderful fabric but precious few icons (the Alamo counts for a lot, but it can’t be the only one).  Am I still allowed to dream such things at my age?  Would it be an appropriate use of my time, however much of it I have left? It’s now or never for me, shouldn’t I get serious, or actually, more serious?

Selig was able to bring MLB back to Milwaukee in only five years after the Braves left for Atlanta.  I wrote my first memorandum and held the first organizational meetings for MLB-SA in May, 2015, over four years ago.  Alas, we are no closer today to obtaining a team than we were then. In fact, we may be farther away from accomplishing the goal since in the latest media coverage on MLB relocation or expansion San Antonio was not even among the first six cities listed as possible candidates.  https://www.baseballamerica.com/stories/mlb-expansion-examining-6-possible-locations-to-add-teams/.  That was not the case in 2015, or even in 2018. https://www.ksat.com/sports/espn-san-antonio-should-be-next-to-get-mlb-team.

I could spend much time here debating the relative merits of my adopted hometown with each of these other cities mentioned by commentators as the “best” candidates for MLB expansion or relocation, but I won’t.  It is fruitless and meaningless.  As I wrote in my very first MLB-SA memo, all that matters is that someone in San Antonio build a ballpark, and they, an MLB team, will come.  It has always happened that way in the real world – MIL, ATL, and even TBR – just like in Ray Kinsella’s imaginary cornfield.  (Well, actually, the cornfield is not imaginary, and maybe the players aren’t either.)

iowa.jpg

(Field of Dreams, Dyersville, IA, 8/20/2015)

In each of those cities and others, I am sure, there were citizens like Bud Selig who dreamed of bringing a MLB team to town and who worked tirelessly to make it happen.  I know this was true in Arlington, where Mayor Tom Vandergriff was instrumental in making Turnpike Stadium MLB-ready and facilitating Bob Short’s relocation and rechristening of the Washington Senators (the second version of the Senators, by the way; the first version had moved to Minnesota to become the Twins, thus fulfilling the dreams of those fans).  San Antonio just re-elected a mayor who has expressed support for major league sports.  He has also actively opposed city support for a new minor league ballpark, even though our local MiLB team was just elevated to AAA with the owner’s expectation of a new park.  The mayor’s opposition to being a “minor league” city is the kind of thinking we need in City Hall in order to get another major league franchise.  Even the Spurs have expressed an interest in making this happen, recognizing that they are bound to have competition some day.

The city has more than ample public/private resources to build a ballpark and get a MLB team, but it needs someone to be the catalyst, or at least one of the catalysts.  We have several companies and business families who could accomplish the feat, either individually or collectively.  So far, however, no one has taken the initiative to make it happen.  Neither did they take the bait when I offered to be the initiator back in 2015.  But, somewhat surprisingly, they didn’t laugh at the idea, either.  In the four years since then an amazing amount of development has happened in our city, including the first “skyscraper” built here in over thirty years.  Other ambitious projects are announced each month.  And most importantly, no other city appears to be any closer to building a new park including Oakland and Tampa/St. Petersburg.  So the opportunities have not diminished.

The “coincidences” I referred to at the very beginning of this post have all of the city’s development as a backdrop, and you can add to this one additional fact – that I have always loved architecture, and specifically urban architecture.  So am I delusional to think that these thoughts have come together in my mind for one purpose: to inspire me to try again to get a ballpark built in San Antonio and bring a MLB team to my adopted hometown?.   Hey, baseball is still a sport where dreams come true in the unlikeliest of manners:  https://www.mlb.com/cut4/a-s-sign-pitcher-who-dazzled-at-in-stadium-radar-booth.

As Ray Kinsella reminds Terance Mann in the movie Field of Dreams:

You once wrote that ‘there comes a time when all the cosmic tumblers have clicked into place and the universe opens itself up for a few seconds to show you what’s possible.’

Personally, I believe in a more specific force than cosmic tumblers, one through whom “all things are possible.” I have had, over the course of my career, some success in bringing together unfriendly parties and unlikely partners.  This is my field, or rather my rus, as Goldberger would call it.   A MLB park in downtown San Antonio (my urbe) is my dream.  Is it any more fantastical than was Bud Selig’s?  Recall that he actually bought his team out of a bankruptcy proceeding, a place where I have done my own share of business shopping and where over the past fifteen years the Cubs, Rangers and Dodgers have each been purchased.  Of course, none of those franchises was going to be moved, no matter how much was paid for them.  But let me make this clear, I don’t want to own the team; I just want one for my city.  I don’t even need to be in the room where it happens.  I just want it to happen.

And I want San Antonio to have a classic ballpark.  It doesn’t have to be in the Retro Era style, but rather one that suits San Antonio, a city that over the past 300 years has developed its own style and ambiance.  Will Rogers is credited as having said that San Antonio is one of only four unique cities in the U.S., along with Boston, New Orleans and San Francisco, and I think a ballpark could be designed to fit our special heritage.  A ballpark project and second major league franchise could also be the culmination of our city’s recent impressive civic development, adding substance to our somewhat procedural status as one of the ten largest cities in the country.

Ballpark site.jpg

(Just to the left of the waving Old Glory is my preferred location for an MLB park.)

But would bringing that about result in an impact on the lives of others in our community that Jackie Robinson would credit?  Paul Goldberger would certainly say “yes,” as would Bud Selig.    And Robert Coover must think so, too.  He had Paul Trench come to this conclusion about the game as he brings the story to a close:

…it doesn’t even matter that he’s going to die, all that counts is that he is here and here’s The Man and here’s the boys and there’s the crowd, the sun, the noise…

Damon holds the ball up between them.  It is hard and white and alive in the sun.  Paul laughs. It’s beautiful, that ball.

I would add, and so would Paul Goldberger and Bud Selig, I think, that the ballpark and the game itself are beautiful, too.  Every major city should have them.

Still so much to ponder. Still so much to discuss.

________________________________________________________________

©JSR 2019

FN 1 – Since this post is practically as long as a reference work I might was well add a footnote to enhance the association, and what better way to enhance a work than to quote Shakespeare?

This thought by Trench immediately reminded me of the realization by King Lear at the end of his own mental crisis:  “Men must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither.  Ripeness is all.”  King Lear, Act V, Scene 2. (emphasis added).  Given the similar mindset of each character, I believe “It’s all there is,”  and “Ripeness is  all” express the same fatalism (or pragmatism, depending on your personal perspective).

 

FN 2 – Not only does Jack not particularly like baseball, until very recently he did not care for sports in general, and particularly not personal athletic competition.  Copied below is his opinion (condemnation?) of youth soccer and other sports, in his own words (well, with a little help from me as the ghost-writer of a family memoir we are working on together):

I remember this scene like it was yesterday, even though it was more than half my life ago. It was my introduction to athletic competition and, as you can see, it did not go well.  I did not go well.  I didn’t go at all.  I just froze up.  I know why. I just don’t know why it is so.

I didn’t have the conversation with my father that day, but we have had it many times since then.  There have been many opportunities.  After soccer, I tried swimming, basketball, flag football, fencing, water polo and, finally, baseball (Dad’s favorite).  The result was always the same – I didn’t really like the sport, and I really didn’t like the competition.

I had no desire to go up against anyone in anything.  It wasn’t just because I was afraid to lose.  I was equally afraid of winning – because if I won, that meant that someone else lost.  How would that make them feel?  If it was the same as I felt, then why would I want to do that to them?

Dad insisted that it was just a game and that no harm was being done by winning, or at least by trying to win.  My response was that if it is just a game, what is being gained by winning, and why should I try?  I was about ten by then, and I think that was the first time I taught my dad something.  Or maybe it was the first time I contributed to my parents’ marriage, other than just having been born.  Because Dad had heard this point before from Mom, but he had not listened.

Sports is serious business with my dad, and I am not making a joke.  He actually owned a hockey team for a while.  That was before I was old enough to understand or even watch.  All we have now is a bunch of newspaper clippings and a few t-shirts in a box in the garage.  But I’m not really talking about business.  I’m talking about life.  Sports is life to my dad, and the rest of his family, as far as I can tell.  Hardly a day goes by that he doesn’t watch some kind of sporting event and pull for one side, or one player, to win.  He even talks to his family members about it and they complain about the results.  Usually it is about his college, which always seems to lose, at least since I have been alive.  He tells me that they used to win a lot more.  But it has been almost forty years since he went to that school and other members of his family didn’t even go there.  So why are they so emotionally wrapped up in the outcome of those games?  And it’s not just one sport, it’s whatever sport that might be on TV, which in my lifetime could be anything from football to women’s softball to Frisbee golf.  Whatever the sport, and whoever might be wearing their school’s uniform, my dad and his dad and his brothers are pulling for them.

That is really weird to me, even weirder than playing the game yourself and trying to win.  At least then you are getting some exercise and maybe gaining some self-confidence for other activities in life that really matter (see, I did listen to Dad’s argument for why I should play at all, and to try to win).  But like I said before, even that idea – of succeeding by causing others to fail – causes me trouble.  I remember being shocked when I first heard a coach say “you’ve got to have that killer instinct!”   Does he know what he is saying?

I probably seem weird to you asking that question, particularly as a teenager.  Most people don’t question the importance of sports, as a player or a fan. And if you didn’t question it before you became an adult, well it’s not likely that you ever will, although my dad has tried.  As you can tell, I have been thinking about it from an early age and I think that has had an impact on him.

These are the questions we have discussed several times since that day I froze on the pee wee soccer field: Why don’t I want to compete?  What am I afraid of?  Is it even a question of fear?  What would motivate me to try?  Why can’t I at least sit down and watch a game with him? Why not at least a baseball game? (which I know is his favorite)

Reading this list and understanding that a son had to answer such questions for his dad even before he became a teenager probably makes you think that my father was really mad at me.  But he wasn’t, or at least he didn’t ask me the questions in anger.  Sure, I sensed some disappointment and I felt some pressure to give in when he encouraged me to try one sport after another. But when, over and over, I decided to quit each one he didn’t get angry.  He just asked these questions trying to understand why.  I was okay with that, because I sort of wanted to understand it myself, at least I did once I realized that my attitude was different from most of the other kids.  Very few of them, at least very few of the ones like me who were healthy and coordinated and from athletic families, seemed to dislike sports as much as I did.  Well, I didn’t really dislike sports so much as I just questioned the concept.  What exactly is the point?

Dad had to think about that one for a while.  He admitted that it had never entered his mind.  He accepted sports, both as a player and as a fan, as a natural part of life, like breathing or eating.   He had always felt that way.  So why didn’t I, his own son, feel the same way?

How could I be so different from my biological father, who played most sports pretty well and wanted to win every time he played, no matter what sport he was playing?  And why wasn’t I wrapped up in the success or failure of a team (or teams), whether from my city or state or birthplace, or one that just wears my favorite color? 

The answer was so simple.  I’m not competitive like my father because I take after my mother, and she is about as different from him when it comes to sports as anyone can get. I’m sure he really knew that but just didn’t want to admit it.  He was probably trying to convince himself that it wasn’t so by continuing to discuss sports with me and holding out hope that I would take after him.  Well, more about that later, but for now you should know that it is hard to play or even watch competitive sports when you take after one of the least competitive – but most hard-headed – persons God ever created.

 

In re-reading this now, I am struck by how similar my son’s thoughts were (and my wife’s still are) to those of Paul Trench.  But fortunately, I can report that Jack eventually developed some interest in sports beyond just making pilgrimages to ball parks with me.  He really enjoys watching the NBA and playing pick-up basketball.  He even tried out for the high school team but, of course, as such a late-starter, did not make it.  He finally managed to beat me one-on-one, but only once. Hey, he is two inches taller and 40 years younger than me, but I can’t let him beat me! Right?

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)