Some thoughts about Christmas and team chemistry

December 24, 2014

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Peace on earth! Good will to men!”

(JSR 2014)

 

Proving My Point Too Well…

I once had a judge tell me that I had asserted my client’s position with such conviction and compassion that he was inclined to think I was lying. Obviously that was not a compliment and, although the judge still ruled in my favor, I realized that even when I am right I can appear to be wrong. The B.A.B.E.S. 2014 MLB competition has taught me a corollary truth: even when I know I am right, I may not know just how right I am. (I bet Yogi Berra wishes he had said that.)

If you read the B.A.B.E.S. Charter,  http://babesbaseball.com/309-2/, you will see that the inspiration for this Society was my belief (shared with Rocky Walker and Steve Jacobs) that one does not have to be a professional sports journalist to predict accurately the outcome of the MLB season. Stated more precisely, we believed that informed amateur observers could predict the results as accurately as those who do so professionally.

Through the first five years of this endeavor our premise has essentially been proven. Although few professionals follow our format (and few from the IBWAA were willing to join), the accuracy of the professional predictions that I have been able to compare has never been better than the B.A.B.E.S. winner in any year. So, I was right, right? Clearly our informed amateur observers can match picks with the professionals.  But so can an 84-year old great-grandmother who has never attended an MLB game even though she lived in Houston for nearly 30 years.

After 27 years of marriage to her only daughter, I can assure you that my mother-in-law, Pat Stone, is one amazing lady.  The most recent evidence of this is that she just returned from a trip to Dallas to ride in a hot-air balloon! But I assure you she doesn’t know anything about baseball. In fact, despite having had me hanging around her house for almost 30 years,  she still can’t name more than a half-dozen of the current teams.  Nevertheless, this gift for ignoring baseball did not keep her from winning this year’s competition with the second highest accuracy percentage in B.A.B.E.S. history (.449). That proves that the science of sports predictions (or probabilities) has its limits but luck knows no bounds.

Listed below are Pat’s predictions made during a long car-ride back from Santa Fe, New Mexico over Spring Break. I gave her the names of the teams in each division and she made her selections at random. She scored with 7 of those 10 picks! From her 5 randomly selected NL post-season participants, she then randomly selected SFO to win the pennant and the World Series – the only B.A.B.E.S. member and to do so and perhaps the only person anywhere! I then gave her 5 names in each of the awards categories and she showed herself able to follow the crowd by correctly choosing Kershaw and Trout (something I obviously never learned to do).

Pat’s 19 random selections resulted in 53 amazing points and one historic B.A.B.E.S. champion – the first female, the most mature and the least knowledgeable winner who happened to post the highest raw score ever.  Not even my brother the statistics professor can explain that.  Indeed, it simply reminds me of another truth: it is smarter to be lucky that it is lucky to be smart! (That sounds like something Yogi would say, but it is actually from the 1970’s Broadway musical Pippin! now enjoying a revival at the Music Box Theatre.)  Remember Charlemagne’s advise to Pippin next year when you are making your selections.  I fully intend to hire Pat as my Scouting Director and will likely turn over all my decision-making authority to her.  It can’t hurt since for the second consecutive year I finished next to last.

Congratulations, Pat!  You made your son-in-law proud and no doubt are the envy tonight of many baseball experts – both amateur and professional.

Pat Stone (53) – NL East/WAS(3); Central/STL(3); West/SFO(1); Wildcards/PIT(3); ARI; NL LCS/SFO(6); AL East/TOR; Central/CWS; West/LAA(3); Wildcards/DET(1); BAL(1); AL LCS/BAL. WS/SFO(12); NL MVP/McCutcheon; NL Cy Young/Kershaw (10); NL Batting/Posey; AL MVP/Trout (10); AL Cy Young/Verlander; AL Batting/Cabrera

O Captain! O Commissioner!

September 25, 2014

With apologies to Rob Manfred, the MLB Commissioner-elect, there is only person who should succeed Bud Selig when he retires next January.  This Sunday Derek Jeter will retire after twenty seasons as a MLB player.  He has stated publicly that he does not want to become an on-field manager or even a general manager.  He has stated privately that he would like to be an owner of a MLB franchise.  However, assuming that the Steinbrenner family will not sell the Yankees, I commented back in March how odd it would be to see the Mets or the Rays owned by Jeter competing against NYY.  It just wouldn’t feel right to him and, frankly, it wouldn’t seem right to the fans.  Yankee fans couldn’t abide such a sacrilege and even NYY-haters like me would think it unnatural.

No, there is only one place in baseball going forward that suits Derek Jeter – other than Cooperstown, of course.  If the Commissioner is supposed to be the one person who has the respect of each owner, each general manager, each player and every fan – the one person who approaches being bigger than the game itself –  Jeter should be the unanimous selection.  (And speaking of Cooperstown and unanimous selections, would any member of the BBWAA have the courage not to vote for Jeter in his first year of eligibility for the Hall of Fame if he had already served as MLB Commissioner for five years?)

Again, no disrespect to Rob Manfred, but shouldn’t the Commissioner of MLB at least be recognizable when he walks into every ball park in the league?  Jeter would not only meet that test as the most recognizable figure in baseball, he is among the most recognizable sports figures in the world.  Even more importantly, he obtained that notoriety only for his actions on the field – successful actions.  Can anyone think of a big moment in his career in which Jeter failed? Even tonight, in a game that was meaningless other than having the distinction of (1) being the only game at Yankee Stadium (old or new) in which Jeter played after the Yankees had been eliminated from the post-season eligibility and (2) being Jeter’s last game at home, Jeter made the utmost out of the moment.

A first inning RBI double and a 7th-inning go-ahead RBI fielder’s choice would be suitable enough for a Hallmark movie on Jeter’s career.  But Jeter’s sporting life has always been featured on the biggest stage with story-lines even the nation’s greatest sportswriters could not conceive.  No one could have scripted the meltdown by NYY closer David Robertson that would allow BAL to tie the game in the top of the 9th and require the Yankees to bat again (unless, of course, you think the bartenders at Buffalo Wild Wings really can control games in order to prolong them for fans).

The two gopher balls from Robertson set the stage for Jeter to come to bat in the bottom of the 9th where he would promptly line the first pitch between first and second base – where else would he hit it? When Antoine Richardson dived headfirst toward home plate and his hand hit white, Jeter was rounding first and looking back toward home, anticipating his first walk-off hit in over 7 years.  Rather than continue to second he shot both arms above his head and leaped into the air celebrating his last Yankee Stadium win just as we had seen him celebrate a World Championship.  The fact that this game was not for a World Championship, but was only the 82nd win of the season, did not matter.  It was a win, and that is what Jeter says he only cares about – winning.

We all know that this is only half of what he cares about.  The other half is winning the right way.  Whatever you may think of the Jeter mystique, there is no denying that he has lived in fishbowl for over 20 years and shown no evidence of having bodily functions.  Watching the game tonight on MLB Network and then the post-game coverage on ESPN, I was struck by the contrast of the Gatorade commercial showing a relaxed, humble Jeter being adored by fans in the Bronx and the new Nike commercial about Richard Sherman trying act humble by stopping people from asking if he is really the best cornerback of all time.  Jeter did not have to go on a self-worshipping rant after a World Series win in order to gain respect.  In fact, he did just the opposite – garnering attention by seeking to avoid it.

Jeter is not only the anti-Sherman, he is the anti-Steinbrenner.  The Boss needed to be the center of attention and worked hard to be just as Sherman has.  Jeter, on the other hand has avoided individual attention and was successful at it while the Yankees still had several icons to soak up the press (could Derek has actually missed A-Rod this year? Probably not.)  He built all of his reputation on the field of competition and tried as best as he could to deflect the worship that has come to him in this final season.  In a society that loves to elevate its heroes to positions above what they deserve or can ever sustain, this is one chance to give a true hero a true position that he truly deserves and at which he will truly excel.

Say goodbye to The Captain.  Say hello to The Commissioner.

(JSR) © 2014

Laboring Day 2014

September 1, 2014

Today we have the rare coincidence of our National Labor Day holiday (which marks the unofficial end of summer) falling on September 1, which traditionally marks the beginning of MLB’s stretch run to the post-season.  So, I trust you will enjoy the National Pastime on this national holiday even more than usually.  There are many important match-ups among the 13 games scheduled, 11 of them during the day as is often the case on holidays.  PIT@STL; DET@CLE and WAS@LAD are just three of the games with serious post-season implications.

Of course, with most teams having at least 25 games remaining, it is still too early to draw any post-season conclusions except that my prediction for the AL pennant winner (TBR) was clearly wrong.  Other than that disappointment, I am optimistic about my picks.  I am sure you are keeping track of your own body of work, just as are the 30 general managers who continue to make trades in a furious (some might say desperate) attempt to reach the post-season and extend their hopes of a world championship.  Since we don’t yet know how those attempts will work out, we can at least pause for a moment and contemplate the process itself, which in many ways is a triumph of labor/management cooperation.

Yesterday I posted a few thoughts on “Homeplate,” http://www.babesbaseball.com, about the importance of Labor Day to all of us – regardless of whether we are members of labor or management.  As you know, I treat baseball as the window through which all life should be viewed, and the current picture MLB provides us of labor/management cooperation is a strong argument in favor of my opinion.  I won’t repeat those thoughts here, other than to say that the success required communication, cooperation and compromise from both sides.  Clearly the business of baseball, from both the owners’ and players’ perspective, has benefitted from this approach.

The complex negotiations of baseball’s Basic Agreement, see this link for the actual agreement, http://mlb.mlb.com/pa/info/cba.jsp, resulted in a player movement scheme that creates several pressure points during the season.  The most dramatic occurs on July 31, the non-waiver trading deadline.  As I observed that day on Homeplate, several general managers made bold moves trading established stars and important everyday players in direct deals that could not be blocked by other teams.  Moves by OAK’s Billy Beane and DET’s Dave Dombrowsky were hailed by most experts, but also questioned somewhat by yours truly.  (Take a look at what has happened to OAK and DET since those trades:

http://espn.go.com/mlb/standings/_/date/20140731;

http://espn.go.com/mlb/standings/_/date/20140901.

After July 31, any player proposed to be traded must clear waivers, meaning that any team can claim a player by simply agreeing to assume the balance of his contract.  If a team makes a waiver claim (either because they want the player or because they don’t want a rival to obtain him), the team offering the player then has 48 hours to a) agree to a trade with the claiming team, b) remove the player from the waiver wire or c) allow the claiming team to acquire the player simply by assuming his contract.  If no one claims a player on waivers, he is free to be traded to any team without interference, unless of course the player has a “no-trade” clause in his contract (which at one time was not allowed) or is a “10-5” player, meaning that he has 10 years of  MLB service and five years with his current team.  Each of these factors makes trades in August a rare commodity.   The fact that OAK got Adam Dunn through this process yesterday says much about how poorly he has performed for CWS and how badly OAK misses Yoenes Cespedes who was traded to BOS on July 31.

Trades in September are even more rare because in order to be eligible to appear in the post-season a player must be on that team’s roster on September 1.  It is very unusual for a team to trade for a player who will only be available to them for the stretch run.  Also complicating the September personnel decisions is the ability to add up to 16 additional players to the MLB roster (increased from 24 to 40 players).  Most teams use this right to give promising minor leaguers a chance to experience big league action in a non-pressure atmosphere.  However, with ten teams now qualifying for the post-season many more teams remain in the post-season race. Today TWENTY teams are within 7.5 games of a post-season birth!  So does a manager risk playing a rookie under such circumstances? Does a general manager seek a late-season trade for an established player at the expense of another MLB player or a prospect, or does he seek to rely on his existing players and prospects?

These are difficult questions and the ultimate answers are not within the powers of management. Certainly, a GM can make a trade, and that move may be universally praised at the time. However, the player may then fail to perform up to expectations.  The regular season is not yet finished, but did you see the results of the last start by David Price and Jon Lester, respectively?  Dombrowsky and Beane must not be very comfortable on this Labor Day, reminding us once again that a skilled labor force performing at the peak of their abilities is an essential part of successful management.  As Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson observed:

“(managers) are just a necessary evil. I don’t believe a manager ever won a pennant. Casey Stengel won all those pennants with the Yankees.  How many did he win with the Mets? I have never seen a team win a pennant without players.”

Think about that on this Labor Day, 2014, as you are sitting on your couch and the best players of the game we all love are hard at work.

(JSR) © 2014

All-Star Reflections

July 14, 2014

All-Star Reflections

MLB’s 85th All-Star game will be played Tuesday night in Minneapolis. It is a mid-season tradition that began in 1933 when the two major leagues were truly distinct and only competed against each other in the Fall Classic, the World Series. That is why the All-Star Game ultimately came to be called the Mid-Season Classic.

The idea for the inaugural game was conceived by Arch Ward, the sports editor of the Chicago Tribune, as a one-time event to incorporate major league baseball in another of Chicago’s World’s Fairs. The owners from each league approved the idea primarily to boost interest in the game as attendance had decreased significantly during the economic depression. Promoted to the public as the “Game of the Century,” the owners also sought to gain favor with the players by donating the gate receipts to the players’ retirement fund.

On July 6, 1933, 47,595 fans filled Comiskey Park (that’s Old Comiskey to us today), which was selected over Wrigley Field by a coin flip (insert Cubs joke here). The fans witnessed 38 year-old Babe Ruth hit a two-run home run that provided the winning runs for the AL.   http://m.mlb.com/video/topic/0/v15759675/1933-babe-ruth-hits-allstar-games-first-home-run.

Twenty of the thirty-six players in that first game would eventually be elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame, which no doubt added substance to the novelty of the event. The reviews were universally positive. Babe Ruth himself observed: “Wasn’t it swell? Wasn’t it a great idea? And we won the game, besides!”

You might think that Ward arranged for Ruth to hit the very first all-star home run, but that would be an uncharitable suggestion given the history of Comiskey Park and suspicious play.  Fortunately even Kennesaw Mountain Landis, who was still commissioner 15 years after the Black Sox Scandal,  saw the benefit of repeating the game and the next year it was officially adopted by both leagues as an annual event. Subsequently, Arch Ward’s efforts to promote the original game were rewarded when the all-star game’s most valuable player trophy was named for him in 1962. Unfortunately for Mr. Ward, that honor has since been withdrawn and bestowed on Ted Williams, although baseball fans can hardly argue with that decision. In an interesting historical coincidence, Ward died on July 9, 1958, just days prior to the All-Star game, and the game was delayed briefly so that many players and owners could attend his funeral.

The legacy of Ward’s “Game of the Century” lives on, without him personally or even his name on the MVP trophy. The NL has won 43 times, the AL has won 39, and there have been 2 ties. The game was not played in 1945 at the conclusion of WWII, but two games were played each year from 1959- 1962 as the players sought to add additional funds to their retirement plan. Interest in the game remains high, but certainly in a different fashion from those early days.  It has certainly changed even since the early 1970’s when there was still only one nationally televised game each week.

My personal childhood interest was fostered by the opportunity to see the different uniforms of each team. I’ll never forget thinking we needed to adjust our family’s new color TV set when Reggie Jackson strolled to the plate in the bright green and gold of Oakland, and with white shoes! The colors were electric even as just trim on the A’s Sunday uniform. They must have provided some additional power for this amazing home run: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-2D9mBNnpUY.

Today, of course, we can watch every single game every night of the season and thereby see all the teams and all of their uniforms even though most teams now have 5 or 6 versions. With the successive advent of cable television, free agency, interleague play and internet broadcasts, the novelty of players from one league competing against the players of another league has obviously been eliminated. However, the concept of the greatest players in the game competing against each other continues to be appealing. This is so even if the current selection of “greatest” players almost certainly does not include twenty future members of the Hall of Fame. (I see only one certain inductee in this game – Derek Jeter.  Several others may be on their way, but it is simply too early in their careers to tell – Cabrera? Kershaw? Trout?).

Even in this time of transition among its elite players, baseball continues to be sport’s greatest game in my opinion, bigger than any one great player or even all the greatest players from any one generation. It is the game itself that I love to watch, and the entrance and exit of certain players, no matter how talented or charismatic, will not diminish my enjoyment of this special edition of its beauty, which sometimes presents itself in unexpected form.

Like in life, beauty in baseball can have a dark expression. Can anyone doubt that it was Pete Rose’s love of the game and athletic competition that caused him to risk his own already legendary career and essentially end the promising one of Ray Fosse with this play to win the 1970 All-Star game?  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Fj2B9z4Dbw&feature=kp.  And that was before the tagline “This One Counts” was adopted as a result of the Commissioner’s decision to award home field advantage in the World Series to the league that wins the All-Star Game.

The desire to be among the best at what you do, and then to be the best of the best (even if for just one night), is a basic human instinct.  Certainly it transcends baseball, but when added to baseball’s inherent beauty, it creates a spectacle that I don’t want to miss.

© (JSR – 2014)

“Let’s be careful out there!”

 

The entire 7-season run of the 1980’s TV series “Hill Street Blues” was released on DVD this month.  The show broke new ground for television in almost every respect.  The description of its attributes may sound common for a police drama series today, but not so in 1981.  No prior series had ever had an ensemble cast (13 actors and actresses receive credit in the opening), or pursued story lines that ran through multiple episodes (sometimes entire seasons) or depicted characters that were both “good” and “bad” (sometimes at the same time), and who challenged the audience’s traditional views of such judgments.

I could write for many paragraphs about my memories of this show that I watched every Thursday night all through law school and the early years of my practice.  Most of you are too young to have seen it during its original run but if you simply watch the intro I think you will immediately develop an interest in the gritty urban landscape and dire events occurring there (“armed robbery in progress”).  You may even feel a relationship building with one or more of the characters just from their intro shots.  The cast was simply that good.

http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=hill+street+blues+intro&FORM=VIRE3#view=detail&mid=FF1AC6E5EEEC64A6211DFF1AC6E5EEEC64A6211D.

I had several favorite characters, but the one that came to mind this week as I read about the release of the DVD’s was Sargent Phil Esterhaus.  He was the precinct leader who handled the daily roll call and gave updates on various suspicious activities or on-going police operations.  He always ended each talk with an admonition to his troops intended to remind them that it was a dangerous world they were about to enter.  His profound advice:  “Let’s be careful out there!”

http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=let’s+be+careful+out+there+and+michael+conrad&FORM=VIRE1#view=detail&mid=EF8643FD4D3A38D4C78BEF8643FD4D3A38D4C78B

Well, it is not a perfect segue, but I am certain that the reason Phil Esterhaus came to mind was that I was at the same time also reading about yet more injuries  in MLB.  Professional sports are not generally viewed as more dangerous than law enforcement, but if the current rate of players landing on the disabled list doesn’t slow, that perception may change.  Injuries have always been part of the game and I have written about them as recently as March.  But can anyone remember a time when so many important players, stars both old and young, have suffered serious injuries in the first two months of a season?

Just consider this list of Texas Rangers players who are likely out for the season starting with today’s announcement:  Prince Fielder and Jurickson Profar  (that is the left side of TEX’s infield that was supposed to be so effective), to these are added 4/5 of the Rangers’ starting rotation – Holland, Harrison, Lewis and Perez – and you can understand why TEX is under .500 and 7 games behind OAK.

Virtually every team has at least 1 major component of their roster out for the season or an extended period.  This includes established stars like Chris Medlin and Matt Harvey, as well as young stars like Jose Fernandez, Matt Moore, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.  Many other veteran stars have been on the 15-day DL at least once, including Sabathia, Votto, Braun, Lee, and Beltre.  The current extent of the carnage is revealed here:

http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/fantasy/injuries/.

Just what is going on here?  Certainly some of these injuries are the result of players failing to heed Sgt. Esterhaus’ advice.  How many times do you have to tell a player NOT to slide into first base? (Hamilton, Harper).  But is there any greater care that can be taken with pitchers these days? Five and even 6 man rotations, strict pitch counts and inning counts (Strasburg), advanced kinesiology – and yet pitchers are still suffering season-ending and even career-threatening shoulder and elbow injuries seemingly every day.  I just don’t get it.    What is even more confusing is that despite all the injuries to pitchers, which undoubtedly has diminished the talent pool, the league batting average is among the lowest in the past 50 years.  Good hitters are hurt almost as much as good pitchers, so I guess we are learning another maxim of baseball: bad pitching still beats bad hitting.

Perhaps this simply reflects the irony that life often exhibits, just as was seen in the life of Michael Conrad, the actor playing Phil Esterhaus.  Sometimes things just happen.  Despite his character’s daily concern for the officers’ safety, caution was unable to save Conrad in real life.  He died of cancer during the fourth season of Hill Street Blues.  http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=michael+conrad+hill+street+blues+intro&FORM=VIRE1#view=detail&mid=E61183EE4AD732225A53E61183EE4AD732225A53.

It is still early in the MLB season, so it is too soon to write the definitive story-line for 2014, but in order to change the focus the managers might considering adopting a new pre-game talk: “Let’s be really careful out there!”

© (JSR – 2014)

 

The Meaning of Opening Day

Opening” – a formal or official beginning, as of a sporting season (dictionary.com – usage 10)

 

Many observers have written about the optimism that epitomizes MLB’s Spring Training.  Each player begins the exhibition season in early March with the hope – if not the actual expectation – of his own and his team’s success.  However, consistent with the weather axiom that “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb,” by the end of the Cactus and Grapefruit seasons reality has usually set in for even MLB’s most established stars.  After all, baseball is a game where personal greatness does not guarantee team success.

Consider that Ty Cobb (24), Ted Williams (19), Ernie Banks (19) and Barry Bonds (22) – among the greatest players of their eras – collectively played on 84 Opening Days and not one of them led to a World Series title.  Indeed, Ernie Banks never even got to play in a World Series  (neither did Ken Griffey, Jr., who actually played more games than did Banks – 2,871 to 2,528).  Thus, Opening Day is for many players of all talent levels just the beginning of another season of hard work and repeated disappointment.  Even the weather is worse on Opening Day than in Spring Training, when many teams leave practice games in the sunny south to play real games in the snowy north.

Even in this age of increased parity, most of the 750 players on MLB 2014 Opening Day active rosters know in their hearts that they will not be playing in the post-season 183 days from now.  This is true even though the expanded post-season format now admits ten teams.  And, of course, only one of those ten will win the World Series and fulfill the baseball dreams of 25 players (or 30 or 35 or however many get voted a share of the winner’s purse due to their contributions during the year).  That means that only about 3% of the players will experience the ultimate “success” and 97% will end the year in disappointment or perhaps just the realized expectation of failure. For many of the players, it is simply a job, albeit a very lucrative one.  Consider that of the players with the ten highest salaries for the 2014 season only one plays for a team that is given any real chance to win the World Series – Zack Greinke, LAD. http://www.examiner.com/article/highest-paid-players-major-league-baseball-mlb-2014.

So why do we fans get so excited about Opening Day that many even want to make it a national holiday?  http://www.cbssports.com/mlb/eye-on-baseball/24505010/opening-day-wont-become-national-holiday.  It is the beginning of a grueling journey that even the most rabid fan has difficulty sticking with every day.  I can only conclude that in that respect it simulates life.  We may have a bad day, but there is another coming that could improve our disposition.  We may have a really good day, but the next day can bring us right back down to the reality that life is hard.  It is a cliché, of course, but any sport that considers a 70% failure rate to be its standard for excellence is certainly an attractive example for how most of us would like to practice our own craft.

The 4th usage of “opening” recorded by dictionary.com is “a void in solid matter; a gap, hole or aperture.” This provides us some tantalizing alternative interpretations of Opening Day.  Baseball could be the aperture through which we view our own lives and the world around us, either for better or worse (that is my choice); or it could be a void that swallows up the solid matter of our lives creating a hole where substance used to be (that is my wife’s view).  Whichever meaning you subscribe to, chances are none of us will even remember what happens today come next October.  Does that make it just like every other day in our lives or does that enable us to enjoy it as the perfect way to pass the time?  I chose the latter.

Baseball is, after all, our National Pastime on Opening Day and all 183 days thereafter.