Classic Baseball

“You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball, and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”  Jim Bouton, Ball Four

March 20, 2013

The third Spring World Baseball Classic finished last night in San Francisco’s AT&T park just as the MLB annual Fall Classic concluded last October – in a cold, persistent rain that couldn’t cool off a hot team.  The Dominican Republic nearly equaled SFO’s 4 game sweep of the Tigers by beating Puerto Rico for the third consecutive time in the championship game.  Both DR and SFO ended their title runs on seven game winning streaks.

The DR may not have been the underdog in the 2013 WBC that the Giants were in the 2012 World Series, but just about everything went right for both teams on the way to their respective championships.    In the WBC title game, timely hitting got the Dominicans a lead in the first inning that was preserved through nine innings by solid starting pitching and dominant relief work.

Yes, the classic formula for winning baseball championships remains the same even when the calendar reads March, not October. It was great fun for me to sit in front of our family TV watching a meaningful baseball game in the month of March with two of my kids showing interest in the outcome and asking me many questions about sport’s greatest game.  I’d call that classic family entertainment, wouldn’t you?

_________________________

The winner of our first WBC competition is first-time B.A.B.E.S. participant Walter Stone, a globe-trotting Aggie petroleum engineer who was in Kuwait for the entire month.  No word on whether he got to watch any of the games, but he claims he didn’t study the teams and mostly just followed the betting line.  With a total of 32 points (a .667 batting average), Walter may have taught us all something about Aggie engineering.   Congratulations, Walter, on winning a coveted “Rocky” in your very first try.

Runner-up was our youngest member, Jack Rose, who at only 11 years-old adds yet another meaning to our name B.A.B.E.S.  (that would be the third definition we have ascribed).  Jack amassed 30 points in his first competition and immediately proved himself to be superior to his father in baseball predictions.  (If he had only gone with Cuba instead of China in the First Round he would have tied Walter for the title.)  Well done, son!

I did manage to finish 3rd with 23 points, and was the only one of us to pick 3 of the 4 finalists.  That gives me hope for a better showing in the upcoming MLB season.  Of course, that shouldn’t be too hard since I was next to last in last year’s standings.

So, all of you guys who finished ahead of me last year better be thinking hard.  Eleven days to go before your picks are due and play begins with TEX @ HOU.  The Astros announced today that Bud Norris will be their starter who will throw the first pitch of the 2013 MLB season and the first American League game in Houston’s history.  Now, if Ron Washington will only repeat on Opening Night what he did last week in a Spring Training game – bat Lance Berkman lead-off.  What a classic moment that would be.

The Bethlehem Nine

December 24, 2012

Any reader of this page quickly learns of my reverence for baseball.  The regular reader may also discern my reverence for Holy Scripture, and perhaps even comprehend my fervent belief that these two interests are divinely connected.  We’ve all heard the old joke that baseball existed even before this world, because the Bible begins with the statement that “in the big inning, God created the heavens and the earth.”  What bigger inning could there be than the one where the earth’s ground was first cultivated into a park of green grass and the high blue sky set over it to cause fielders all kinds of fits on sunny days?  Perhaps you will accept this interpretation of Genesis 1:1, or perhaps not, but in this Advent season I hope that the suggestion at least makes you think about the relationship between sport’s greatest game and life’s greatest mystery.

I have been studying this year’s Hot Stove moves by all 30 MLB teams as they try to make themselves into winners, either on the field or at least at the box office.  As the pace of free agent signings increases, I am reminded of last year and how obtaining even the most prized player of a generation does not guarantee a spot in the playoffs, much less a World Series title. Baseball is still a team game and every championship team has an excellent ensemble cast, no matter how large the contributions of certain individuals may be.

Because I was already considering a B.A.B.E.S. Christmas greeting, and because I often think of my faith in baseball terms, I began to consider the Christmas Story as a General Manager might. While it is clearly the story of one superstar figure, the great victory that is represented by the Nativity Scene actually includes many essential supporting players that became stars themselves. Evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of all these players, in very short order I had filled all the positions on the diamond and “The Bethlehem Nine” was born.  The name may not be as catchy as the Bronx Bombers or Big Red Machine, or even the Mudville Nine, but if I was a GM in the celestial league I’d really like my chances with this line-up.  The idea may be a bit over-the-top, even for me, but it’s Christmas Eve, so as a Christmas gift to me please  consider the following player evaluations in the Spirit of the Season in which they are offered.

Building the Bethlehem Nine (there was no DH in God’s plan):

Every winning club starts with a strong battery.  The B-9er’s were totally set there:

Starting Pitcher –  Holy Spirit:   Often referred to as the third-person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is actually the staff ace that all coaches dream about.  A No. 1 starter able to throw smoke (with a wind-up and delivery as pure as a dove), HS is also blessed with a devastating off-speed pitch that would upset the timing of even the most devilish hitter.  (I always smirk at a commentator’s frequent use of the word “devastating,” but the 3rd Webster’s definition – “to overwhelm” – certainly seems to apply here.)   We all marvel at Cy Young’s 517 victories, or Nolan Ryan’s 27 seasons and 5,714 strike-outs, but even those lofty numbers are nothing when compared to a pitcher who is said to have hovered over the field even before the first mound was formed.

Catcher – Joseph:  He looked like the classic lug toiling away in the tools of ignorance (sure, Mary’s innocent….), but Joseph surprised everyone by his ability to adapt and handle even this epic curve ball from the Holy Spirit.  (He’s one pitcher who calls all His own pitches.)  Joseph, of course, always preferred the straight ball, but learned to trust his pitching coach and go with whatever the staff ace decided to throw his way.  He thus proved to be an example for many backstops to come.  What other source could Yogi have had for this bit of wisdom? “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

In addition to a stellar battery, we all know how important it is for a baseball club to be strong up the middle. No problem there for this team from the House of Bread (the meaning of the name “Bethlehem”):

Shortstop – Angel Gabriel:  Every great club has a shortstop who serves as the team captain, controlling play on the field and keeping everyone positive off the field.  What better fielder could you find than one slick enough to appear magically in a house unfettered by space and time? And what better voice in the clubhouse than one able to greet the team’s new high-priced free agent with:  “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.”

Second Base – John the Baptist:  The second sacker always plays “second banana” to a star shortstop, but the middle-cog in a double-play combo is very important, especially one who as a veteran player graciously yielded the spotlight to a new star. (“I must decrease and He must increase.”)  Of course, despite his modesty, JtB also talked some serious trash with his rivals (“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”).  I bet no one tried to take him out with a rough slide at 2d!

Centerfield – Heavenly Host:  Even in the band-box park that is Bethlehem, you would still need a centerfielder who can cover ground and direct the corner outfielders authoritatively.  The perfect example is the anonymous angel calling out to the shepherds exactly what is happening, where they should go and even what signs to look for in the later innings. For at least one momentous night, there were in fact angels in the outfield.

In addition to needing the critical positions covered, every championship team must have strong role players.  Once again, the Bethlehem Nine filled its needs perfectly:

Right and Left field – Shepherds:  Please forgive the stereotype, but who else did you expect to find in the corner outfield positions?  These guys patiently watched over their field in isolation, but then skillfully sprang into action when the ball miraculously came their way – and they didn’t lose it in the Light!  Making even the difficult play look routine, they joyfully returned to their positions “glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them.”  Oh, that all players were so coachable and ego-free.

1st and 3rd base – Wisemen:  (I know what you’re thinking – that there were 3 wisemen, not 2. But in fact the text only uses the plural term “magi” and does not designate how many there were, just that there was more than one.)  Conventional wisdom says that a team must have big production from the power corners, although these are not usually considered “role” players.  But in fact, it is simply their role to put up the big offensive numbers which most have in the past and for which they are now likely the highest paid players on the team.  No wonder they are expected to carry the team to victory against even the toughest opponents.  These wisemen from the East (Ichiro? Matsui?) not only brought 5-tool gifts with them, they also foiled nasty King Herod’s attempt to ruin the team, first with a luxury tax and then with a plan to kill all the prospects in the farm system.   Through the ages, baseball has survived the actions of any number of evil doers who would abuse the game and its players for personal gain.  Someday we will all know the truth that it is more blessed to give than receive. (Not to mention, “love your neighbors.” I adhered to my Advent pledge of earlier this month and did not make the obvious connection between Satan and NYY.)

And that’s my starting 9 for the expansion team in Bethlehem.  But of course a winning baseball club consists of more than just the starting nine.  You need a good utility player, a clutch pinch-hitter and a lights-out bullpen.  The Billy Beane of Bethlehem had those needs covered, too.

Utility/pinch-hitter – Simeon and Anna:   It seems every World Series Champion has a journeyman player who has been around for years (Edgar Renteria), and/or an aging superstar trying to prove he still is an elite player (Lance Berkman), and each finally gets to shine in the clutch moments of the post-season action.  So we see in Simeon and Anna who while notable in their own areas for years of faithful service were not really considered important until given the opportunity to star in the Christmas Story’s victory tradition -the presentation of the Christ child for circumcision. Perfect! And perfect timing!

Set up man – Mary:  Although most people believe the structured use of the bullpen is a creation of modern baseball, there is at least one historic example of note.  Even the best starter takes an early exit sometimes; and even the greatest closer doesn’t always want to get a 6 out (or more!) save.  You need a dependable bridge that keeps you in the game who, while not the star of the team, nevertheless makes victory possible.   Why do you think a good set-up man (or, in this case – woman), can always find a team and stay in the league year after year after year?  Mary played her part faithfully and completed a long career, and for that she deserves our lasting praise, if not a life-time contract.

Closer -The Christ Child – Well, no surprise here, although I took my time making the call. He’s the one everyone is expecting to see when the game is on the line, the one against whom the opponent has “no chance.” (Think Jon Kruk against Randy Johnson in the 1993 All-Star Game.  A blasphemous comparison, perhaps, but that scene is instructive.  The Scriptures never give any physical description of Jesus, and for one at-bat at least the most powerful force in the Universe could be represented by a 6’10” lefthander with a snarling face.  Just as scary an image as a rider on a white horse with a sword in His mouth, and a telling contrast to the babe in a manger.)  As with some of the lesser great closers, the process of getting the last out may not be what you really expected, or even hoped for, but nevertheless the ending remains certain.  “Game Over” for the black hats.  “The Light shone in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

So there you have it – my best explanation of how baseball is a template for understanding anything, even the incarnation of the Great Commissioner.  I’m sure this is clearer in my mind than yours, and probably much more interesting to me than you.  But, again, I hope you find the suggestion is interesting and that perhaps it will even add a bit of cheer to your off-season.

MERRY CHRISTMAS.

(JSR) © 2012

Love Your Enemies – Part 2 (Marvin Miller and Bud Selig)

December 13, 2012

Five stories seen on the web last night:

1)  Union members threaten violence in Michigan over the legislature’s new “right to work” law that will further diminish union influence in the American work place;

2) tea party leaders vow to fight the re-elected President’s plan to raise taxes on businesses and the wealthy, saying this will stifle growth and cause another recession or financial crisis like 2008;

3) the NHL cancels all games through December 31, as the owner’s lock-out has now eliminated nearly half the season with no resolution in sight;  

4) MLB announces that the average salary for 2012 was a new high,  $3.2 million; and

5) expecting billions of dollars in revenue through a new TV deal, LAD’s payroll for the upcoming season approaches $250 million with two new free agent signings, including a 6 year, $147 million contract with Zack Greinke (and just now LAA has signed Josh Hamilton for five years, $125 million).

Marvin Miller died last month at the age of 95.  As most of you know, he was the architect of the rise of the Major League Baseball Players Association as a very powerful union in the 1970’s, earning players the right to become free agents and sell their services to the highest bidder.  While I generally side with management on most labor issues, I recognize a great performance when I see it, and Mr. Miller’s legacy is one that every MLB player should honor everyday.  Many baseball writers expressed this same sentiment in memorials following Miller’s death, which seems contradictory to me since some of them (along with HOF-member players and executives) must be responsible for the BBWAA’s continuing refusal to vote Mr. Miller into the MLB Hall of Fame.

In a similar contradiction, my management tendencies have rarely caused me to support Allan Huber “Bud” Selig in his efforts during 20 years as MLB Commissioner. Yet, despite the personal animosity I felt toward Miller in my youth, when I learned that a “strike” in baseball could mean more than a batter’s swing and miss, and toward Selig in my middle age (is there any part of the game still sacred?), I believe the times are proving that each of these men has been very good for baseball.  Therefore, in the spirit of my Advent-season pledge to love my enemies, I grudgingly give them both credit for keeping baseball out of the negative headlines referenced in stories 1-3 above.  Instead, as evidenced by stories 4 and 5, Miller’s and Selig’s performance statistics are definitely worthy of a hall of fame (business, if not baseball).  They also go a long way toward proving that labor and management can both succeed under our capitalist system when they have the right product to sell and are willing to cooperate in the marketing effort, even if that willingness comes only after some hard-fought battles where both sides lose some of the time.

In 1975, when Miller brilliantly engineered the successful legal challenge to the perpetual application of the reserve clause on behalf of Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, the average MLB salary was $44k.  As noted above, the average salary for players in 2012 rose to $3.2 million. Even an English major like me knows that inflation won’t account for this nearly 100 fold salary increase in less than 40 years – not 100%, but 100 TIMES.   Clearly, free market enterprise has been very good for baseball players, but surprisingly it has not been a financial death-knell for MLB owners as many predicted, and it certainly hasn’t killed the sport even though the percentage of revenue spent on salaries increased from 20% in 1974 to over 54% in 2001.  Who gets credit for that? Well, capitalism for starters, but that’s for another post.  For now, just recognize that Marvin Miller gets credit for the legality of rising salaries, and Bud Selig must get some, perhaps the lion’s share, of the credit for the owners’ ability to pay higher salaries.   I see these two points as related because there is no denying that baseball has enjoyed enormous growth since the advent of free agency, both in attendance and revenue.  Although I’m not the business professor in our family (my brother is), there must be some connection between the emotion free agency brings to the fan base (both positive and negative), and the increased revenue derived from that emotion.  Therefore, Miller’s legal victory at least set the stage for an increase in baseball’s popularity which owners have exploited under Bud Selig’s leadership, whether they know it or not, or will admit to knowing it.

When Selig became acting commissioner in 1992, the average player salary had risen to $1 million and the total attendance had increased from 29 million in 1975 to 55 million. As I reported in my post “The Only Real Game…”  (11/05/12), total attendance in 2012 exceeded 72 million, and had been even greater in the prior year.   More importantly for owners, under Bud’s leadership total MLB revenue has increased from $1.5 billion in 1992 to over $7.5 billion in 2012.  With new TV deals in several markets, including LAD, it is estimated that revenue for 2013 could approach $9 billion.  Even in Barry Goldwater terms, that’s starting to sound like real money.

When your company has increased total revenue over 600% during your tenure, you are generally considered to be an effective CEO, even if industry followers decry your failure to police PED use among players and grouse about traditions being trampled by innovations such as interleague play, an All-Star game that “counts” and the expanded post-season.  Further, many will say that TV cable deals are largely responsible for the revenue increase, but even if that is so doesn’t the popularity of the product have a direct bearing on the fees paid? And who more than Bud Selig has molded the product that is the current MLB game? (New stadiums in 26 markets; interleague play; expanded post-season; multiple TV outlets including its own network; quicker games – except NYY v. BOS, of course – instant replay and numerous other developments over the past 20 years).

The owners’ satisfaction with Bud’s job performance is evident by their keeping him as “acting” commissioner for 6 years, then removing the qualifier and extending his contract multiple times.   Twice he has delayed his retirement plans at the owners’ request and is now set to leave the office in 2014, when he will be an octogenarian.  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.  And in my opinion, he has done as much right for the players as he has for the owners.

The most important component of his success, of course, arose from his greatest failure – the 1994-95 players’ strike that cancelled the World Series for the first time, something two World Wars hadn’t done.  Fans were outraged and swore never to return.  Then just when everyone assumed MLB was dead, it climbed out of the morgue and has since gotten healthier than ever, based in large part on 18 subsequent years of management and labor peace – soon to be 22 with the ratification of a new contract extending through 2016.  Selig has to get credit for much of this since he is the constant figure in the process.  It shouldn’t be an insult to say that a man who grew up in the car sales business has proven to be as astute a negotiator as the former leading man for the United Auto Workers union.  Nor should it be forgotten that Selig clearly has a sense of baseball’s place in American history and how it can impact the nation’s psyche for the better.   During his tenure MLB has played a very important role in our national reflection and the rebuilding of our national self-confidence. (Remember September, 2001, and why “God Bless America” has replaced “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” as the most-sung anthem during the 7th inning stretch.)

On a more practical level, perhaps Selig’s best work came not against the players or regarding the performance of the game, but rather against his wealthiest owners, whom he convinced in 2000 to share revenue among the franchises.  This agreement provided the necessary balancing of the economic impact of free agency and allowed small market teams at least a chance to make money if not win championships – and let’s face it, NYY, BOS, LAD and LAA need teams in the fly-over states to play against or there wouldn’t be a league.  If you’re really interested, see the Sport Journal’s article “Is Revenue Sharing Working for MLB?”, ISSN 1543-9518, where the impact of disparity among local revenue is analyzed in pains-taking detail.  Alternatively, if you’re only moderately interested, read the next few paragraphs.

Although 2012’s annual Winter Meeting came and went last week without any public debate or friction, rest assured that the labor/management salary drama continued off-stage. We learned enough through the media to know that several actors had changed roles, some no doubt due to revenue sharing and luxury tax (ask Hal Steinbrenner).   LAD is now playing the part of NYY (“take our money, please!” $240 million and counting for 2013), and NYY is doing its best to impersonate OAK (“we must abide by our budget!” – they lost Russell Martin in a bidding war with PIT?)  LAA’s signing of Pujols, Wilson and now Hamilton further shows that even the younger team in a large market has money to burn.

Most observers – fans and experts alike – will assert that the business model is still broken when one team can spend nearly 10 times more than another on its annual payroll (the Astros currently have only $30 million committed to player contracts for 2013). However, when your product is popular enough to generate revenue to support a $250 million payroll to produce it in one market, and yet agile enough to where the same product (or even better) can be produced in another market for less than $60 million (see Billy Beane and Andrew Friedman), don’t you have the perfect storm of labor and management success?  You do, in my opinion, and I applaud the owners and players (management and labor) for seeing just that.

As Congress debates with itself and the President about seemingly impossible budgetary problems for our national government, our National Pastime could supply some of the answers.  Of course, I think that baseball holds the answer to almost every question in life, but it would at least be informative if Mr. Miller’s actions were studied.  He first made small but important gains for the players before taking on the citadel of free agency.  Further, his shrewd strategy was also always carried out in a calm and gentlemanly fashion.  Wouldn’t it be helpful if Congressional leaders investigated MLB’s successes under Selig’s leadership as aggressively as it did its PED failures?  MLB’s balance sheet is more than a little better than the country’s.  Indeed, when our Nation looks to be heading downward on an irreversible path, MLB is there to show that it doesn’t have to end that way.  Mr. Miller and Mr. Selig, representing labor and management, have shown the way to a hard-fought but fair compromise that can be beneficial to all.  politicians, take note.

I must admit that the somewhat terse statement Selig released on behalf of MLB marking Miller’s death suggests that the owners still harbor grudges, and Selig was one of them for 12 of Miller’s 17 years as head of the MLBPA.  It is obviously difficult for some owners to come to terms with free agency, even though the adjective “free” should also apply to them in the sense of the freedom NOT to bid on players unrestricted by a contract (unless of course they colluded with other owners and all agree not to bid….)  Rather than fretting over the industry’s rising labor costs, these owners should focus on the revenue rise and overall increases in franchise values.   Net operating revenue may still be a challenge some years, but for some time now and for the foreseeable future balance sheets among MLB franchises look very healthy – even when they are examined as Monthly Operating Reports before the Federal Bankruptcy Court, as in the recent cases filed by TEX and LAD.  So long as attendance remains strong and the cable TV operators can pay the fees they have agreed to pay, baseball’s future, and the future of its players, will be very bright and leaves no cause for owners and players to be enemies. That should make for Happy Holidays for MLB owners, players and fans.  Now, if the government will just take note.

(A personal note: Lest you have any doubt about my schizophrenic personality, you should know that I am the product of a mixed marriage. My father was management and my mother was labor.  Of their myriad personality differences, perhaps none was more telling than this fundamentally opposite view of life.   As is often the case with offspring, I got some of the tendencies of each gene pool, and I never know which is going to control my thinking.  However, 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.)

(JSR) © 2012

Love your enemies – Part 1 (the Yankees)

“Scott, your commentary is excellent, but you need to retain SOME sense of objectivity when discussing my beloved team.”         Email from B.A.B.E.S. member Bill C.

December 1, 2012

I hope that you all had a blessed Thanksgiving and that it properly prepared you for the December holidays.  As we enter the season of Advent, Hanukkah and Kwanza, considered the “most wonderful time of the year” even by those who adopt a secular point of view, I have been thinking about my attitude.   I confess that I have been less than kind lately in my posts, particularly toward the professional media; and of course I am never kind toward the Yankees.  In the Spirit of Christmas, the December holiday I observe, I have decided to try to better apply one of the teachings of its principal figure, who urged His followers to “love your enemies.”  What better place for me to start than with the New York Yankees?

Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t like NYY.  Hardly any post goes up on this site that does not contain a snide comment about the Evil Empire in general, or the Steinbrenners, A-Rod or even Brian Cashman, specifically.  I confess that even when I expressed some sympathy for A-Rod in  “Leaves of Grass”  (10/22/12), it was with a cynical, belittling tone.

Although I’m sure no one in pin stripes – either the uniforms or the suits – has lost any sleep over what I think about him, lately I have begun to feel badly about it myself.  Well, not really “bad,” but just a little unsure of myself. Self-doubt is so uncommon for me that I was actually beginning to analyze this strange feeling when I received Bill’s email quoted above.  His “beloved team” is, of course, NYY, and the timing of his gentle rebuke seemed more than an interesting coincidence. (Can a Yankees fan be gentle? – Oops, there I go again).

As most of you know, my main criticism of NYY has been that there is no honor, or shouldn’t be, in winning World Series titles by simply spending the most money to assemble a team of the most productive players then available at each position.  That has been the NYY business model for over a century, starting shortly after the franchise relocated from Baltimore in 1903 to become the New York Highlanders (changed to the Yankees in 1913).  Babe Ruth was, of course, their best purchase in 1920 (even though he was already the highest paid player in baseball), but he was certainly not the first.  Many one-sided trades were made because the Yankees had cash to send along with players (this didn’t just start with the “Boss”).  Some owners, however, would not sell their best players for cash, and it wasn’t until Marvin Miller broke the reserve clause in 1975 that NYY’s standard operating procedures were fixed.  (More about Mr. Miller, R.I.P., and the MLBPA in the next post.) What was to come through free agency was foreshadowed by the signing of Catfish Hunter, who became available due to a contract SNAFU by the A’s and promptly was made the highest paid pitcher in the game – by NYY, of course.

Many Yankee free agent signings followed, as we all know. Some generally successful, like Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield, Gary Sheffield, Jason Giambi (?) and other big hitters, as well as pitchers Roger Clemens, Kevin Brown, Mike Mussina, Jimmy Key and David Wells (twice!).  Many others were not so successful.  A few of my favorites are: A.J. Burnett, Kenny Rogers, Hideki Irabu, Kyle Farnsworth and Carl Pavano!  Old habits are hard to break.

Just consider NYY’s 2012 roster:  No. 1 starter – free agent (highest paid at the position); 1st baseman, free agent (highest paid at the time); 3rd baseman, free agent (highest paid of all MLB players); right fielder, free agent to be (agreed to trade just so he could play for NYY); catcher – free agent; DH, free agent; closer (after Rivera’s injury), free agent  (signed as set-up man for closer money).

With the possible exceptions of Martin at catcher and Ibanez at DH, where is the skill in assembling that line-up?  Maybe some credit is due for the Swisher and Granderson trades, but despite all these transfers, who was their best player?  Most would pick Robinson Cano, homegrown.  And who was/is their Captain, the heart and soul of the team?  Derek Jeter, homegrown, of course.  Thus, the only two Yankee-developed players in the starting 9 happen to be the team MVP and the team captain.  Do you see my point?  If you don’t, take a look at Richard Justice’s current column on MLB.com (“Winning the Off-Season Doesn’t Always Translate to Title,” 11/29/12). He gets it, and probably explains it better there than I am here.

To be clear, my dislike is not just because NYY has won so much. I admire greatness in sport that leads to domination, such as with Jack Nicklaus (my childhood hero) or Tiger Woods or Roger Federer – all of whom I faithfully cheered for in every single competition (even when Tiger was being unfaithful).  The fact is that they were/are the best at their craft, and it is our obligation as sports fans to respect their athletic greatness.  And that brings me back to my point, where is the craftsmanship in buying the best player at each position?  Isn’t that the reason most NBA fans objected to LeBron and Chris Bosh conspiring to play with Dwayne Wade in Miami?  Where was the sport in that?  Of course, winning an NBA title proved harder than most expected, just as winning a World Series remains hard no matter how much money is spent.  In addition to NYY, consider BOS, LAA, MIA and LAD.

Anyway, back to NYY, which has actually fielded teams that I liked, or at least respected.  The 90’s dynasty team was built around very likable players Bernie, Tino, Paul, Derek, Jorge, Andy and Mo, most of whom the Yankees developed.  (Can you believe that 3 of those last 4 will STILL be on the 2013 roster?)   And even if you hated the way he handled the bullpen, you have to admit that Joe Torre was, and is, a likeable guy. And who could dislike Don Zimmer (other than Pedro Martinez)?  Certainly those teams had some high-priced free agents, but the heart and soul of the teams, and the reason why they won championships, were the players that NYY developed and who grew up Yankees, not those who were already grown-up and tried to change their stripes through the power of green.  Most of the time the pressure of that green, added to  inflated expectations and the stress of living in NYC, leads to failure – not championships. To me, there is simply something more admirable, perhaps even noble, about the titles won with Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, and Ford (all lifelong Yankees), than those won with Jackson or Clemens or Rodriguez or any other established star who moved to NYY at the peak of their careers.

However, there is reason for me to back off my criticism of NYY other than just to get into the Christmas spirit.  Consider this quote from Hal Steinbrenner last Spring announcing that the team will reduce its payroll to below $189 million by 2014:

“If you do well on the player development side, and you have a good farm system, you don’t need a $220 million payroll,” Steinbrenner said, in a rare public appearance Thursday. “You don’t. You can field every bit as good a team with young talent.”

Brian Cashman, meet Billy Beane.  Truthfully, Cashman has done a nice job finding important pieces for the club over the years and, who knows, with less money to spend perhaps he will look harder and finally be recognized as an astute GM.  And be honest, NYY fans, wouldn’t World Series title #28 achieved with less than the highest payroll in MLB feel just a little sweeter? I think so and I would welcome it (well, at least tolerate it).

So, here is my Christmas gift to NYY:  I pledge to be nicer toward you and, perhaps, even to become an admirer if you begin to win the old-fashioned way – with players you developed or believed in when most other teams did not.  In addition, I will try to follow my manager’s directive and start to love you, my baseball enemy.  If that happens, how can we remain enemies?

And I think that is His point.

(JSR) © 2012

 

Jeffrey Loria deserves some love – and respect.

November 20, 2012

[B.A.B.E.S. member Marc Whyte challenged me to defend the Marlins’ blockbuster trade with TOR this week.  I am happy to oblige.  I welcome your Comments grading my persuasiveness.]

The headline this morning on ESPN.com was “Marlins salary-dump trade is finalized.”  This was  accomplished only after Commissioner Selig reviewed the deal under the “best interests of baseball” clause.  Anytime you see that analysis, you know that most people smell a rat.  Indeed, from the fans’ reaction in Florida and the commentators’ opinions still spewing forth nationwide nearly a week after the deal was first announced, we all know who they view as the rat:  Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria.

The words used to describe the Loria-directed trade include “deplorable” (Parting Shot’s Jemele Hill), “betrayal” (Miami Herald beat writer) and “the ultimate con” (ESPN’s Buster Olney). I would like to know more about Olney’s “con” theory, but since ESPN charges money to read his column, I only know what is in the teaser (talk about a con job!) Grantland’s Jonah Keri did call Loria a “genius,” but it was not expressed in the best sense of the word.

Once again I find myself in opposition to most of the baseball media “professionals” who somehow view this trade as a crime against humanity – or at least against the good people of South Florida.  They could not be more wrong, and even Bud Selig knows it.  Here is his official statement issued in connection with approval of the trade:

This transaction, involving established major leaguers and highly regarded young players and prospects, represents the exercise of plausible baseball judgment on the part of both clubs (and) does not violate any express rule of Major League Baseball and does not otherwise warrant the exercise of any of my powers to prevent its completion….”

As a lawyer, I appreciate the “plausible baseball judgment” standard Selig applies (the “business judgment rule” is a beautiful thing).  But in my view, this trade is based on much more than plausibly good sports judgment, or whatever lowest-acceptable-standard you want to apply.  I won’t go into a detailed analysis of the players involved, but viewed solely in the context of the 2012 performance there is nothing to suggest that the players traded away (and the salary dumped) will result in the Miami Marlins winning fewer games in 2013.  Remember, these essential players that were just shipped off to TOR contributed to a grand total of 69 wins this season, tied for 25th out of 30 teams (but they were 7th in payroll).

Personally, I admire Loria’s blunt assessment of the deal: “We finished in last place!”  What did they expect him to do beyond firing Ozzie Guillen?  As one of the all-time great tennis players preached: “Never change a winning game. ALWAYS change a losing game.”  And this team composed mostly of 2d choice free agents (Reyes excluded) was way over-valued by most observers (including me).  It took only half the season to reveal that there was no chemistry between the players or with the manager – and of course the only chemistry Ozzie knows is chain-reaction-explosion. The team was not likely to be better in 2013 with the remaining nucleus and with WAS, ATL and PHI to compete with in the NL East.  Why not save $150 million and look for some better chemistry?  It’s not like it has never been done before, like about 3 months ago in BOS.

And why does Loria get vilified while John Henry and Ben Cherington get free passes?  The fact is that Miami’s trade is exactly the kind of reboot that BOS did with the Gonzalez, Beckett, Crawford trade with LAD.  Almost no one criticized that deal (at least not from BOS’ point of view) or called for John Henry to be expelled from the ownership ranks.  One blogger argues that the Red Sox’s Henry has “credibility” and Loria does not.  What?  Henry may have one more title than Loria, but he also presided over a monumental disaster since BOS’s last win in 2007.  He and Theo Epstein signed several bad-fit free agents, hired the wrong manager and finished in last place, just like the Marlins.  Why should they be allowed to dump their stars in a rebuilding effort, but the Marlins not?

There is clear a double standard at play here, and it is founded upon the constant and clearly erroneous belief that money buys championships.  BOS gets a pass on the deal with the Dodgers because everyone assumes that the Red Sox will replace these high-priced players with other high-priced players.  Cherington even issued a press release last week stating: “I know that we’ll have a very strong payroll, a large payroll. I know that we’re going to add to it this winter. I’m confident in saying that we’ll be amongst the larger payrolls in the game.”  The Marlins, however, all the experts assume, will sit on their hoards of money generated by the new stadium that Loria swindled out of the South Florida tax payers.

How many times do I have to say this to these “experts”:  A BIG PAYROLL DOES NOT GUARANTY WINS!  Supposedly John Henry knew this in 2002 when he tried to hire Billy Beane. If so, he clearly forgot it as he let his payroll balloon and his team ultimately swoon.  Ditto for the Yankees and the Angels and so many other teams I have mentioned here in years past, and again this year.  Just as I predicted in September, only 5 of the top 15 payrolls made the post-season in 2012.  (“Billy Beane for President” – 9/5/12).  SFO was #8, but their payroll was still only 55% of NYY’s.  The evidence is simply too compelling that you can’t buy a pennant or a World Series banner.

Loria may have felt obligated last winter to sign big names to appease the masses that were paying for his stadium, but that was PR not baseball smarts. He can’t be accused of conning the fans and taxpayers when these contracts were only signed after the stadium was built and the funds spent.  I haven’t read the bonds issued by Dade County, but I’m fairly certain they do not require a minimum Marlins’ payroll.  Only the MLB Basic Agreement requires that, thanks to our civic-minded MLB players association.   This is the same players association that is said to be incensed that Loria would trade these stars even though he expressly refused to give them a no-trade clause. No one seems to recall that the players agreed to take his money without the contract provision.

That he refuses to give players, even top free-agents, a no-trade clause is another reason to admire Loria, in my opinion.  Any organization must have its principles, and most should be built on maintaining control of its destiny.  Preserving the right to trade unproductive or cost-effective players is a foundational principle of the Miami Marlins, and I respect that.

So, I’ll close with a simple declaration that I admire Loria for his courage to admit that the front office made several mistakes and for taking aggressive action to change a losing game.  The power to make this trade was retained by the shrewd adherence certain principles such as rejecting no-trade clauses.   As you know, I believe the most admirable championship team is one that was constructed not with a checkbook but with research and determination and even courage to admit that you made some dumb free-agent signings and are happy to find someone willing to bail you out of them.

I am now officially a Miami Marlin fan again and am pulling mightily for them to be the surprise success story of 2013.   If it can happen in Oakland, it can happen in Little Havana.

(JSR) © 2012

Living Up to Our Name And Fulfilling Our Mission

November 16, 2012

When we included the adjective “Best” in the name of our society a certain amount of skepticism must have arisen outside the membership and perhaps even within our ranks.  Personally, I never doubted the truthfulness of this title as I have listened attentively to and studied critically the work of sports journalism professionals for many years (even before this became publicly popular under the banner of firejoemorgan.com).  To quote Billy Beane, as portrayed by Brad Pitt:  “Don’t tell me you know, because you just don’t. You don’t!”  Of course, he was talking about a scout’s ability to predict accurately whether a prospect will succeed in the major leagues, but the sentiment is also applicable to most of the commentators attempting to predict the results of an upcoming MLB season.    The just don’t know who will win – and most of them don’t know much else either, if you really listen to what they say.  I’ve often wanted to hire a court reporter to transcribe some of this “expert analysis” so that it could be critiqued in black and white, just like a witness’s testimony or an attorney’s argument.  Incomprehensible!

Anyway, even an accurate title does not mean there isn’t pressure to perform when our group’s mission statement boldly declares the intent to prove ourselves better than those who earn their living by doing what we chose to do as a hobby.  Fortunately, another year has shown that we should doubt not and fear not, for we are the best at what we do (or at least one of us is most years now that Nate Silver gave up following baseball to study political elections).

The winner of the 2012 James L. Walker Award (the “Rocky”) is B.A.B.E.S. co-founder Steve Jacobs, with a total score of 45 points, the second highest point total in B.A.B.E.S. history and the largest ever margin of victory (15 points). More importantly,  I have researched the predictions of over 20 professionals from ESPN, SI, Fox, MLB.com, Sporting News and CBS Sports, as well as many independent bloggers, and not one of them scored higher than Steve.  Perhaps there was a better MLB prognosticator out there in 2012, but I have not found him (or her).  Correctly selecting 5 postseason teams, both league champions, a batting champ and an MVP is truly an expert performance.

So the Best American Baseball Experts Society proudly congratulates Steve for making us what we say we are – the home of the best MLB experts in America.  Congratulations are also due to Marc Whyte who finished in 2d for the 3rd time in the past 4 years.  Well done, Marc, we know your time to win the Rocky is coming.  The order of finish for all members is below.

45 points –

Steve J. – CIN (3) SFO (1) DET (3) NYY (3) TEX (3) Cabrera (10) DET (6) SFO (6) Cabrera (10)

30 points –

Marc W. – CIN (3) ATL (1) SFO (1) DET (3) NYY (3) TEX (3) SFO (6) Price (10)

29 points –

Tim T. – SFO (3) ATL (3) TEX (1) DET (3) NYY (3) Cabrera (10) DET (6)

Carl R. – CIN (3) ATL (1) DET (3) NYY (3) TEX (3) DET (6) Cabrera (10)

27 points –

Gus P. – SFO (3) STL (1) TEX (1) DET (3) NYY (3) SFO (6) Cabrera (10)

25 points –

Eric H. – SFO (3) CIN (3) DET (3) NYY (3) TEX (3) Price (10)

23 points –

Matt B. – STL (1) SFO (1) TEX (1) DET (3) NYY (1) DET (6) Cabrera (10)

21 points –

Tony L. – CIN (3) SFO (1) TEX (1) DET (3) NYY (3) Cabrera (10)

19 points –

Bruce R. – SFO (3) STL (1) ATL (3) DET (3) TEX (3) SFO (6) –

Pete H. – STL (1) SFO(1) TEX (1) DET (3) NYY (3) Posey (10)

18 points –

Thomas F. – SFO (3) CIN (3) ATL (3) STL (3) DET (3) TEX (3)

14 points –

Leo G. – SFO (3) STL (1) WAS (3)  TEX (1) DET (3) NYY (3)

11 points –

Jed M. – SFO (3) STL (3) TEX (1) DET (3) NYY (1)

10 points –

Rob C. – SFO (3) TEX (1) DET (3) NYY (3)

Tom M.- SFO (3) STL (1) DET (3) NYY (3)

9 points –

Bill C. – STL (1) SFO (1) TEX (1) DET (3) NYY (3)

8 points –

Rip L. – STL (1) ATL (1) SFO (1) TEX (1) DET (3) NYY (1)

Scott R. – STL (1) DET (3) NYY (1) TEX (3)

4 points –

Jennifer R. – ATL (3) TEX (1)

And now to close the book on the 2012 MLB season and open the 2013 Hot Stove Season, I must repeat something I wrote in my July 10 post at the All-Star break. I should have quoted myself in the “Leaves of Grass” post-mortem I wrote about the Yankees on October 22, but frankly I forgot to review my prior thoughts. I wish I had because, although I finished near the bottom of the B.A.B.E.S. standings as usual, I nailed this analysis of NYY, right down to the prediction that Ibanez would pinch-hit for A-Rod 3 months before it happened:

5. Speaking of A-Rod, or rather, please note the weird fact that no one seems to be doing that. I guess it is because the Yankees are leading their division and have the best record in baseball – which is also weird since I personally think NYY is a weak team, which brings me back to A-Rod. Although he’s spent no time on the DL, A-Rod is on a pace for about 25 homers and 75 rbi’s (with a not-so-studly .793 OPS).  He couldn’t man-up for both games of a double-header this past weekend in Boston and Girardi used Raul Ibanez instead of A-Rod to pinch hit in the 9th with the game on the line.  Next thing we hear, Ibanez will be pinch hitting for A-Rod.  As Arte Moreno is learning, $25 million/year in salary doesn’t necessarily get you all you need or want from a player.  The only weird thing about that is that Arte hadn’t learned this previously from Brian Cashman and Hank Steinbrenner.

Although I joined many of you in selecting NYY for the play-offs and they do have the best record at the Break, I’m quite comfortable in asserting that the Evil Empire will not win title #28 this year, and it won’t be due to the injury to Mariano Rivera (NYY’s success without Rivera supports my belief that the closer’s role is overrated).

So, let the Hot Stove warm up fast.  When has there ever been an off-season where NYY needed 3 starting pitchers, a catcher, a leftfielder, a rightfielder and a DH?  And, truthfully, don’t they also wish they had a new 3rd baseman and maybe even a different shortstop, even if their current one gets healthy?  Oh, and about that 43 year-old closer coming off knee-surgery….  And now it looks like TOR will be totally revamped with several cast-offs from MIA, so the AL East just got tougher.  Does anyone see 95 wins for this team in 2013?  Not likely to be a very comfortable off-season for Brian Cashman or Hank and Hal Steinbrenner, which should make for very Happy Holidays for some of us.

(JSR) © 2012

“The only real game in the world, I think, is baseball.” Babe Ruth

November 5, 2012

Can only 10 days have passed since the last out of the 2012 World Series?  Already I feel an emptiness inside caused by the lack of anticipation for the day’s slate of games.  This is how I know that I am a baseball fanatic (“a person with extreme and uncritical enthusiasm or zeal” – dictionary.com):  when I pine away for even a meaningless afternoon baseball game (Cubs v. Astros?), when meaningful other events are available to occupy my time and to which attention should be paid.

It is, after all, a quadrennial election year, and the past 10 days may prove to have been an important time in American political history.  Also, there are people hurting in the Northeast following Hurricane Sandy and  there are people in need every day here in my own city of San Antonio.  There are many chores to be done around the house and about a dozen good books sitting on my desk in my study that I know I should read (and I am 30 days behind on my daily Bible study thanks to the MLB post-season). My kids need help with their homework (if I could only remember how to solve Calculus problems or recall the primary cause of the War of 1812).  Other sports are either in full swing (NFL and college football) or fresh from season openers (NBA),  but yet my first and foremost, virtually exclusive, inclination is to want MORE BASEBALL.  So here I am, sitting around thinking about baseball, even to the point of writing about thinking about baseball.

What rational reason can there be that I (and we) love baseball so much?  One possibility, I’m sure, is that we long for the success of our favorite team or player, which will in some equally irrational and inexplicable way gratify and validate us personally. But that feeling is available from any sporting contest, whether it is a team or individual sport.  We all have our favorites and some are based on geography while others are inherited from our parents or even adopted as an act of rebellion against them.  So loyalty and disloyalty alone do not explain why over 70,000,000 tickets are sold each year to MLB games.  Indeed, the second highest attendance for any professional sport in 2011 was also baseball, the Japanese major league which drew over 21 million fans.  By contrast, the NFL and NBA barely topped 17 million each, behind even the NHL! (As Casey Stengel would say, “you could look it up!”)

No, something else is at play in our feelings about baseball, something that could justify Babe Ruth’s belief that it is “the only real game in the world.”  Careful B.A.B.E.S. readers may recall that I struggled to articulate my own love of the game in a remembrance of Rocky Walker posted during Spring Training.  But since there probably aren’t any careful B.A.B.E.S. readers, I will repeat part of what I wrote back in March:

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

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

(entire post can be reviewed in the March, 2012, archives….)

Now that another season has passed, I can update these thoughts to substitute Pablo Sandoval for David Freese and refer to the 4.2 seconds constituting the aggregate pitch delivery time for his 3 home runs in World Series Game 1.  I can point to the Giants as a case of successful amnesia, or selective memory, having forgotten the failures of 2011 and repeated the triumph of 2010 (which not one of us predicted, by the way). I can also add one more year to the eternally optimistic Cubs’ fans’ wait till next year – now 105 years and still counting. And speaking of the Cubs, I can use them as an example of how just one baseball pitch can even change the life of a fan forever (more about that in a future post).

But do these thoughts really distinguish baseball from other sports?  Aren’t there epic moments of success or failure in every sport, even those that have occurred in an instant?  And don’t other sports’ seasons span the earth’s seasons, too? (Baseball may start in Spring and end in Fall, but football starts in Summer and ends in Winter, which strikes me as stronger distinction.) Of course, there is the repetition of the baseball season, where during its six-month run a baseball team may have fewer than 3 days/month without a game.  In that way, baseball is unique, but isn’t that the very fact cited as turning fans away rather than drawing them into a deeper appreciation of the sport? (I know that is true for my wife.)

So, I am still searching for the uniqueness of baseball and the precise reason why I love it so much.  If he were still with us, I’d ask the Babe to explain his views, which also included this apparently subsequent thought to the one quoted above: “Baseball was, is and always will be to me the best game in the world.”  Perhaps he realized that it couldn’t objectively be called the “only real game in the world,” but could subjectively be called the “best” – especially by one of the best players in its history.

Do you get this picture, no matter how poorly I have captured it? If so, is it perhaps a view more like a mirror in which you see not the Babe or me, but yourself?  If so, I welcome your effort to try to describe that reflection.  Exactly why is baseball the “best game in the world” to you?

The comments section is wide open, and Spring Training doesn’t start for another 100 days.  Do you really want to leave that much time for me to ponder this alone?

(JSR) © 2012

Giants! Killers!

October 28, 2012

They are named the Giants, but they don’t carry the reputation of bullies.  Indeed, in this very space last week I called them David to the Tigers’ Goliath.  But in the 21st and perhaps most unlikely sweep in World Series history, the San Francisco Giants lived up to their franchise nickname and towered over favored Detroit.  With a team personality that exudes joi de vivre and the age of innocence (see Sergio Romo), they can hardly be considered cold-blooded assassins.  Yet, there is no doubt that they embody the traditionally lethal baseball combination of dominant pitching, excellent defense and timely (but only occasionally, power) hitting.  This trio of baseball weapons slayed the Tigers with remarkable ease.  No need to talk of destiny or Divine intervention in this Series.

From the record-tying 3 home-runs in Game 1 by Pablo Sandoval to the title-clinching single by Marco Scutaro (who else could it be?) in the top of the 10th in Game 4, the Giants were in total command of this Series.  With back-to-back shut-outs by a National League club for the first time since 1919 (and does that even count since it was against the Black Sox?), the Giants trailed after only 3 of 37 innings!  The Tigers got only 12 hits and scored only 3 runs over the last 3 games (only 6 runs in the entire Series).  The final out was a classic Goliath moment, with Triple Crown-winner (and likely MVP) Miguel Cabrera frozen at the plate by an apparently unexpected fastball that was called Strike 3.  Was that a baseball glove Sergio Romo was wearing, or a sling-shot?  The cameras turned immediately to the Giants’ second celebratory scrum on the pitcher’s mound in the past 3 years, but had they remained focused on home plate I’m sure we would have seen Cabrera topple over, cold and dead, just like Goliath.

I know I perennially finish near the bottom in our B.A.B.E.S.’ standings, but as I said last Wednesday, I know enough theology to always go with David over Goliath, even when David is dressed in a uniform that reads “GIANTS.”

The Giants’ victory resulted in no change in the B.A.B.E.S. standings.  It all comes down to the voting for AL MVP and Cy Young to decide whether Steve or Tim is the B.A.B.E.S. champion this year.  We’ll know in a few weeks and I will be back to say more about the 2012 season.

Manifest Destiny and the 2012 World Series

October 24, 2012

(Commissioner’s note to Society Members:  This is a long post simply because there is just so much to talk about from the NLCS, and of course, I love to talk.  I appreciate getting to express my views here and I hope you will read this post (and others) at your leisure, but I understand if you prefer to skip down to the current standings reported at the bottom of the post. FYI, it’s now a two-man race, just like in the World Series and presidential election.)

I wrote at length in my post last week about 3 teams of apparent destiny in this year’s MLB post-season; yet I did not mention the St Louis Cardinals or the San Francisco Giants.  Clearly my focus on the A’s, O’s and Nats was a mistake, as none of those teams even made it to their league championship series.  I should have paid more attention to the past two MLB World Champions, each of which had earned a return trip to the post-season and had shown signs that one fulfilled destiny does not preclude the possibility of another, and might even indicate it.

However, I felt, and I am sure you feel, that I have pondered too much about the role of Divine intervention and pre-destination in the outcome of sporting events (although, as one B.A.B.E.S. member reminded me this week, the Texas Rangers are still “the team that can’t win”). But just when I was ready to leave behind this sports theology obsession along came one of the weirdest plays in MLB history that cemented one of the unlikeliest comebacks in a post-season series (or series of series), and which compels me to conclude, once again, that larger forces are at play in the outcome of MLB’s post-season.

The Cardinals were “the team that wouldn’t lose” in 2011 and appeared intent on retaining that mantle in 2012.  Despite being buried by CIN in the NL Central division, they held off LAD and MIL for the first ever second wild card position, and then defeated ATL in the first post-season play-in game (with the help of the deepest in-field fly in MLB history).  Most impressive of all, the Cardinals “refused to lose” even when down 6-0 to the Nats in an elimination game that included a 9th inning rally reminiscent of their performance in Game 6 in the 2011 World Series. The 6-run deficit was the largest ever overcome in a post-season elimination game. Therefore, these Birds, though not Angry, appeared determined and destined not to lose again.

At the same time, the Giants were also doing something that had never been done: dropping the first two games of a 5 game series at home and then winning 3 straight on the road at CIN.  Was SFO about to recapture its own magic of 2010 even without baseball’s thickest, blackest and, frankly, creepiest beard? (Am I the only one who thinks Brian Wilson is really Steve Carell with a ridiculous fake beard?  Google pictures of both characters and decide for yourself.)

So, which is it?  The sheer power of the players’ refusal to lose, or a Divine decree that pre-ordains the outcome? I pondered anew.  And then, suddenly, I was given a revelation that it could be – and really must be – both.  I came upon this while helping my daughter with her 11th grade American History assignment on westward expansion.  I was looking at the textbook and there was the proof, right there in black and white letters and color pictures.  The strength of our great nation was its overwhelming sense of entitlement to this land by Divine decree.

In the 19th century, thousands upon thousands of Americans and soon-to-be Americans left St. Louis (don’t you love the arch cut into the outfield at Busch Stadium?) heading west to claim the Pacific Ocean as our western border.  No geological mountain was too high and no hostile indigenous population or European nation was too fierce to stop the westward march of these United States.  As God had led the Pilgrims to the shores of the Atlantic, so He would lead our citizens to the shores of the Pacific.  It was Manifest Destiny, the ultimate collaboration between God and Man.  See what studying history while watching a baseball game can do for you?

Therefore, to me it was only fitting that the victorious St. Louis Cardinals would then travel from our Nation’s capital, not to their home in the Gateway City, but all the way to San Francisco’s Golden Gate for the NLCS.  There they would face the indomitable Giants – a sports franchise that succumbed to the allure of western expansion even 100 years after California was admitted as the 31st member of the United States. Although Dodgers’ owner Walter O’Malley rightfully gets credit for taking MLB to the West Coast in 1957 (and blame for destroying the hearts of Brooklyn fans), he could not have done it without the agreement of the NY Giants’ ownership to move their team west at the same time.

Interestingly, this NLCS would be the first time the winners of the two previous World Series had met in the post-season, and together these successive champions hold 17 World Series titles. In addition to this collective proud history and the shared momentum of stirring comebacks, it would also be a classic match-up of great pitching (SFO) against great hitting (STL).  We all know who usually wins those contests, but STL quickly jumped ahead 3 games to 1 and still looked like the team that wouldn’t lose.  But then the mantle was loosened, and the Series forced back to the City, by a stellar pitching performance from Barry Zito (of all people!).  Who could possibly have predicted (or caused) that except an omniscient, omnipotent being?

Before the baseball-bashing Cardinals knew it, they had scored only one run in 18 innings and found themselves in another Game 7. But not to worry, they had won 6 consecutive elimination games dating back to last post-season and had won 11 Game 7’s in franchise history – the most by any MLB team.  Sure, the Giants had won 5 consecutive elimination games this post-season, but in their franchise’s rich history there had NEVER been a Game 7 victory (5 losses in 5 tries).   Let’s see, 11 Game 7 victories for STL, zero for SFO.  Advantage STL, right?

Well, streaks are made to be broken, and inevitably all are.  But has ever one been broken with a broken bat?  Or by a broken bat double or triple-hit base-clearing double, or was it a triple?  (Has a sentence ever been written that used the words “double” and “triple” 4 times, and as both adjectives and nouns?)  And could such a weird play have come off the bat of anyone but Hunter Pence, whose ugly playing style and quirky personality actually resemble the flight of his hit – in the hole at short, no – up the middle, in front of the centerfielder, no – under his glove!  Does “Angels in the Outfield” come to mind? (And speaking of resemblances, also Google pictures of Hunter Pence and Woody Harrelson….)

In all probability, SFO was on its way to winning this game even without the presence of a baseball Holy Spirit.  As it had done in sweeping three games against CIN, SFO’s pitching continued to dominate the Cards, who scored the most runs during the season and had done the same in the post-season until scoring only ONE run in the last 27 innings of the NLCS.  Also, the Giants bats came alive, even those that didn’t shatter, and a classic unlikely post-season hero appeared in the form of Marco Scutaro.  (Do you think he pronounces his name with the accent on the first syllable to be associated with Phil Rizutto – the Scooter?)  Clearly these Giants were capable of helping themselves to the NL Pennant, but a little Divine intervention was welcome when it came.

So, there it is – the mystery of the ages has been revealed.  There is a God and He loves baseball.  He gifts certain players with abilities that appear so natural that we view them as gods.  He also creates David-like characters who prevail in the unlikeliest fashion against the tallest of odds.  Remember these truths Wednesday night when you are watching god-like Justin Verlander pitch to David-like Marco Scutaro, and think about Manifest Destiny.    Personally, I’m going with SFO’s Golden Gate David over DET’s back-East Goliath. But then I’ve already shown that I have no direct communication with the Great Commissioner.  Just look at the scoring below.

THE FINALISTS FOR THE JAMES L. WALKER AWARD (“THE ROCKY”)

35 points

Steve J. – CIN (3) SFO (1) DET (3) NYY (3) TEX (3) Cabrera (10) DET (6) SFO (6)  correctly picking the two league champions is a brilliant performance, worthy of the name “expert.”  If DET wins the Series and Cabrera wins the  AL MVP, Steve will not only win The Rocky, he’ll set a new points record.

29 points –

Tim T. –   SFO (3) ATL (3) TEX (1) DET (3) NYY (3) Cabrera (10) DET (6)  In order to best Steve, Tim must now must pull for SFO to win the Series even though he picked DET.  If a Cubs fan wins the B.A.B.E.S. title in his first try, what does that portend for the Cubbies in ’13?

POSSIBLE ALL-STAR TEAM SELECTIONS:

23 points

Matt B. – STL (1) SFO (1) TEX (1) DET (3) NYY (1) Cabrera (10) DET (6) Matt can do no better than 3rd due to matching picks with Steve and Tim (DET as WS champ and Verlander as AL Cy Young), but an impressive B.A.B.E.S. debut.

20 points

Marc W. – CIN (3) ATL (1) SFO (1) DET (3) NYY (3) TEX (3) SFO (6) – could move up with Price as AL Cy Young.  A good showing by perennial B.A.B.E.S. contender.

19 points

Carl R. –   CIN (3) ATL (1) DET (3) NYY (3) TEX (3) DET (6) – possible 32 points still on the  board with DET in WS, Cabrera as AL MVP and Verlander as AL Cy Young.  51 would be a B.A.B.E.S  points record  but would still fall to the better new record that would be established by Steve, who has 2 of the same 3 picks.

Bruce R. – SFO (3) STL (1) ATL (3) DET (3) TEX (3) SFO (6) – nice SFO pick but scoring is done for his inaugural season

Leo G. – SFO (3) STL (3) WAS (3) STL (3) TEX (1) DET (3) NYY (3) – we won’t have our first repeat  B.A.B.E.S. champ this year.

Pete H. – STL (1) SFO(1) TEX (1) DET (3) NYY (3) Posey (10)  – only Verlander with a chance among his player picks

18 points

Thomas F. – SFO (3) CIN (3) ATL (3) STL (3) DET (3) TEX (3) – only possible player pick is Verlander.

17 points

Gus P. – SFO (3) STL (1) TEX (1) DET (3) NYY (3) SFO (6) – likely to score with Cabrera and perhaps Verlander, but not enough.

15 points

Eric H. – SFO (3) CIN (3) DET (3) NYY (3) TEX (3) – Could still move up with  Price as AL Cy Young.

Tony L. – CIN (3) SFO (1) TEX (1) DET (3) NYY (3) – this perennial contender needs to score with Cabrera as AL MVP and Weaver as AL Cy Young in order to avoid the conclusion that he is an aging star past his prime, just like all of his beloved Yankees.

Jed M. – SFO (3) STL (3) TEX (1) DET (3) NYY (1), Needs Verlander to repeat as Cy Young to finish in the middle of the pack.

READY FOR OFF-SEASON WORK-OUTS AND HOPING FOR THE COMEBACK AWARD IN ‘13

10 points

Rob C. – SFO (3) TEX (1) DET (3) NYY (3) –  Weaver as Al Cy Young could improve his finish, but still waiting till next year!

Tom M.- SFO (3) STL (1) DET (3) NYY (3) – Verlander as AL Cy Young could make his showing respectable, despite that NYY World Series pick;

9 points

Bill C. – STL (1) SFO (1) TEX (1) DET (3) NYY (3) –  no reward for his faithfulness to NYY

8 points

Rip L. – STL (1) ATL (1) SFO (1) TEX (1) DET (3) NYY (1) – only Verlander as AL Cy Young can improve his standing

Scott R. – STL (1) DET (3) NYY (1) TEX (3) – I thought I might gain a measure of respectability with STL making the Series.  Alas, God is striving mightily to keep me humble, and He can do it.

4 points

Jennifer R. – ATL (3) TEX (1) – No offense to the babest of the B.A.B.E.S., but aren’t the rest of us thankful that she finished last?

© JSR 2012

Leaves of Grass*

October 22, 2012

This may be old news by now, but I wanted a few days to ponder the decline and fall of the Yankee Empire. I also wanted my good friend and NYY fan Steve J. to get back from his trip to Israel so I could greet him with a careful review of all that he missed while he was in the Promised Land.  Welcome home, Steve, but as you probably heard, the Yankees did not make it there this year.  And the prospects don’t look so bright for next year, either…..

Back at the start of the post-season, B.A.B.E.S. member Tom M. emailed me saying “now let the real season begin” – a quote he ascribed to “The Captain” -  NYY’s iconic shortstop Derek Jeter.  To which I promptly replied in my typical anti-Yankee and highbrow literary manner:  “O Captain, my captain, fallen cold and dead.”

I meant no harm to Mr. Jeter, nor any disrespect to the memory of Abraham Lincoln as eulogized by Walt Whitman. I was just following my penchant for overstatement and somehow came up with an analogy that was eerily correct. Could there have been any more prophetic utterance about the future of the old men in Pinstripes – and not just the Captain?  Or was it just the inevitable fruition of my endless carping about the Yankees?
There is no doubt that NYY’s post-season showing was historically inept, but I personally believe it was simply  the culmination of a season-long decline that was masked by some inexplicable force that would not let them lose to the Baltimore Orioles.  Once the Orioles were finally vanquished for the 12th and deciding time in 23 games – a series score that reminds me of Spassky v. Fischer in 1972 – the real NYY showed up at Yankee Stadium the next day and promptly went down with its Captain.  Sure, it was only Game 1, and the Yankees showed some heart in overcoming a 4-run deficit in the 9th,  but did anyone doubt that the series was over  the moment the Captain fell?  And, in truth, wasn’t it actually over even before the season began?

Starting in Spring Training with Michael Pineda flaming out at 23, to Mariano Rivera being carried off the field in Kansas City,  there were many symbolic pictures of the fallen Empire.  At mid-season there was the shattered ankle of the un-retired Andy Pettitte; CC Sabathia and Mark Teixiera each spent time on the DL down the stretch; and finally, in the post-season, the Captain himself was laid out at his shortstop position writhing in pain, refusing to be carried off the field but obviously not to return this season no matter how he exited the Yankee Stadium stage.

Add to these painful images the almost pathetic ones of Alex Rodriguez sitting comically in the Yankees dugout constantly spitting sunflower seeds and looking more like the water boy than the highest paid player in baseball.  Even more humiliating was the fact that most in the Yankees’ organization acted like the water boy was more important.  I never thought I’d say this, but I actually felt sorry for A-Rod, shackled to the Yankees’ bench, a prisoner of the biggest contract in sports history and universally hated for it.  But as my wife so innocently but correctly observed: “You can’t blame him; he didn’t force them to give him all that money.”  Absolutely true, and besides, there were so many other blame-worthy characters.

Adding to the leading-role catastrophes were these minor travesties: a) Robbie Cano’s “cooling off” from hitting .600 the last 10 days of the season to recording MLB’s first ever batter’s no-hitter in the post-season (0-29); b) Nick Swisher setting his own mark for post-season ineptitude (1-37 w/RISP); c) Eric Chavez ably mimicking Rodriguez by going 0-16 at the plate and making a game-losing error at 3rd base; and d) Raul Ibanez running out of magic and striking out to end Game 3 (isn’t that A-Rod’s job?) when the last chance to save the season presented itself.  So, there were many more players than just #13 at fault here.

And some blame could be thrown at management, too, and not just for A-Rod’s contract being forced on Brian Cashman by Hank Steinbrenner.  There was Cashman’s trade that brought Curtis Granderson from the Tigers and sent Austin Jackson and Phil Coke to Detroit (and DET also got Max Scherzer in the 3-way deal!).  Certainly, Granderson contributed significantly to the 2009 title, but Jackson and Coke were vitally important to the Tigers’ post-season victories this year and last, while Granderson was benched just like A-Rod.  It’s usually a good trade when both sides are benefitted, but would the Yankees undo the deal today if they could?  I think so.

And then there is the manager, a guy I actually like and think is largely responsible for delaying the inevitable collapse for this long.  But how can Girardi say emphatically that Rodriguez is his 3rd baseman one week and then bury him on the bench the next?  Perhaps he felt he could not copy Joe Torre and simply drop Rodriguez to 8th in the order, but personally I don’t see how benching him for 3 games helped the Yankees’ cause (and the scoreboard doesn’t explain it either).

Once again, I’m amazed to hear myself defending A-Rod, but he just can’t be blamed for the collective failure of this flawed team (my description of NYY back in March, rememeber?).  Of course, we may see the Tigers steam-roll through the World Series and prove to us that it was actually their pitching that caused the Yankees’ hitting woes.  After all, as many of us picked DET to win the Series as picked NYY (4).  The Tigers’ pitching was remarkably good, just as the Yankees’ hitting was remarkably bad, and as we all know, good pitching beats even good hitting, and dominates bad hitting. But no matter how good other teams are or who actually wins the World Series, the interesting story this off-season is going to be what happens with the Yankees.  The Hot Stove doesn’t start for weeks, of course, but let me be among the first to ask these pressing questions about NYY in 2013:

1. Do Jeter and Rivera recover in time to start the season? 

2. Can they recover fully enough maintain the grueling positions of shortstop and closer?
3.  Is Swisher gone?  And shouldn’t he be?

4. Will Sabathia and Teixeira have off-season surgery?

5. Does Ichio re-sign?

6.  Does Cano get a long-term deal?

7.  Who plays 3rd base?

8. Does Josh Hamilton wear pin-stripes next?

9. Is A-Rod in the starting line-up or on the bench? Is he traded or is he released if he refuses to waive his no-trade clause? (Hey, he’s only owed $114 million.)

10.  Does Andy Pettitte come back again? If so, does he wait till the All-Star break to sign?

11.  Does Girardi come back?

12.  Do Hank and Hal realize that the Boss is dead and that is not what they want to do with their lives?

13.  What would I do if I didn’t have the Yankees to hate?

*Some of you will know this to be the title of Whitman’s collection of poems that included in one edition the elegy for President Lincoln, “O Captain, my Captain!”  You may not know, as I did not, that the title was apparently an inside joke by Whitman, since “leaves” was a term that poets used for mediocre poems that they selected to fill out a volume for printing and “grass” was the publisher’s term for how many pages would have to be used to print a volume.  So, Whitman may have been playfully demeaning his own publication as composed of all mediocre works.  If so, history has proven him incorrect, but I certainly like using the same idea to describe the 2012 New York Yankees and think that the title just might not be a joke when applied to them.