Archive for the ‘baseball’ Category

Dunn, Nats Clobber Cards

Sunday, August 29th, 2010

So here’s the question: how can the Washington Nationals — so toothless against an also-ran and struggling team like the Chicago Cubs — play so well against the St. Louis doom-machine Cardinals? It could be (of course) that the Nats simply play better against stiffer competition (a notion belied by their record against good teams), or it could be (as it seemed on Saturday night) that the team was just due. Whatever the reason, the Washington Nationals finally broke loose against the St. Louis Cardinals on Saturday, plating fourteen runs on sixteen hits, to clobber the Cardinals, who seem suddenly mediocre against struggling teams. The difference on Saturday was Adam Dunn. The left handed swinging behemoth, mired in a month-long slump, provided the impetus for the Nats to break out of their doldrums: Dunn was 2-3 with five RBIs, hitting a towering fly in the 5th for his 32nd home run. “I hit the home run really good,” Dunn said after the win. “I just knew the ball was really high. At this park, you really never know.”

But Dunn was not the only one on fire on Saturday. Michael Morse also had a hot hand, going 4-4 and scoring two runs, while Adam Kennedy, Roger Bernadina, Ryan Zimmerman and Ivan Rodriguez had two hits each. Over the last two games, the Nationals (whose offense has been positively anemic through much of August) have scored 25 runs on 25 hits, a symmetry rarely equaled through the last five months. While the Nationals might seem to have little to play for (they are nearly 20 games out in the race for the N.L. East Division crown), the same cannot be said of the Cardinals — who need every win they can get to keep pace with the surging Cincinnati Reds, who retain a four game lead over the Cardinals in the N.L. Central. The Cardinals are now faced with a chilling end-of-August reality: unless they start playing better against teams like the Nationals, they will cap a very good season without a shot at the playoffs. For the final game of this four game series, the Nationals will send John Lannan against Albert Pujols & Company on Sunday at Nationals Park.

Scoring The Nationals: Each game — and every year — provides its own scoring rarities. Two occurred on Saturday night that I have never seen before, or scored before. While “keeping a book” is always a challenge, the application of little-known rules to in-game situations can be discomforting. When Ian Desmond was called out for running outside the baseline in the third inning (how often, really, do you see that?) MASN play-by-play host Bob Carpenter helped me along: “That’s scored 3u,” he said — first base putout, unassisted. But the play demanded an asterisk — an outside-the-tradition personal tic that I use to note a rarity (some scorers use an asterisk to denoted a stellar defensive play, I prefer an exclamation point). There was a second asterisk (it’s important to limit their use) that I used in Saturday’s game. It came in the 8th inning, when Nyjer Morgan was called out at home plate (or, more pertinently, behind it), after being touched by a Nationals’ player. Once again Carpenter helped: “That scored 2u,” he said.

The problem with using an asterisk is that it always demands an explanation: which I give in a sentence at the bottom of my score sheet. The July 9 Strasburg beauty against the Giants (6 innings, 3 hits, 1 ER), for instance, included this asterisk in the first inning: “Cain throws it into the ground.” The asterisk was enough for me to recall a memorable moment in the 2010 season — when Giants’ pitcher Matt Cain lost his grip on the ball, which led to Roger Bernadina scoring the Nationals’ first run from second base. The official scoring, I claim, provided only a limited (and even puzzling) explanation that doesn’t really tell the story: “E: Cain (1, pickoff).” There are some events, however, that drive me back to paging through the best best resource on scoring, Paul Dickson’s “The Joy of Keeping Score” (it ought to be called “The Agony of Keeping Score”) which includes one scorer’s “WW” notation — “wasn’t watching.” That happens.

Of course, and as Dickson himself will readily admit, there are some events that happen on the field that simply can’t be scored — though they are fascinating. For instance: I was mightily confused with an event in Philadelphia, when Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz was stopped by umpires from visiting the mound after heading into the clubhouse for a new glove. Why was he stopped and sent back behind the plate? Why, why, why, why, why? I didn’t get it, and the announcers seemed as puzzled — finally just dropping the subject. The puzzle was finally answered (after much thought) by a family member (here he is) who provided this explanation: “If the catcher goes into the clubhouse and then emerges from the dugout to go to the mound, it constitutes a visit,” he said. “The umpires told him — and he decided against it.” Fascinating — and correct. But it has to be remembered; it can’t be scored.

(above: Adam Dunn photo by AP/Susan Walsh; below: Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack used his scorecard to give signals)

Tommy John . . . And Stephen Strasburg

Friday, August 27th, 2010

The player for whom Tommy John surgery is named was one of the smartest and tenacious pitchers to ever throw from a major league mound. Check the record: John pitched for 26 years, compiling a 288-231 record with a career 3.34 ERA and 162 complete games. He threw well (he led his league twice in winning percentage and three times in shutouts) and often brilliantly for four good teams: the White Sox, Dodgers, Angels and Yankees. It’s a shame, truly, that Tommy John is remembered best for the surgery that was performed, first, on him — after he “blew out his arm.” For while we credit medicine with inventing “Tommy John Surgery,” the procedure that repaired his arm was really his idea and was performed at his insistence by Dr. Frank Jobe. That fact is important, because most (and damn near all) pitchers before Tommy John who suffered from “forearm stiffness” or “a dead arm” (the names then given to symptoms that pointed to elbow ligament damage) simply left the game. Tommy John didn’t.

Baseball commentators (Peter Gammons, Steve Kurkjian and others), sports talk junkies (ESPN  980’s Tom Loverro and Rick “Doc” Walker) and Nationals’ fanatics (me and you and God knows who else) seem to have come to three conclusions about the news that Stephen Strasburg will have to undergo season-ending Tommy John surgery. The first is that the Strasburg injury is “devastating” and potentially career ending, that the injury derails Nationals’ plans to contend in 2011 (or even 2012), and that the news reflects the fragility of modern pitchers — whose susceptibility to blowing out their pitching arm shows they aren’t as tough as “old school pitchers.” All three conclusions are false. And here’s why.

Okay, okay: the Strasburg news is “devastating” for Strasburg because it will keep him off the mound for 12 to 15 months; but the news is not fatal either to his career or to the long-term prospects of the Washington franchise. Others have had the surgery, many others, and have come back as good as new — or better. After having “Tommy John surgery,” Tommy John went on to win 164 games. A.J. Burnett, Chris Carpenter, Tim Hudson, Arthur Rhodes, Carl Pavano and Billy Wagner have all had the procedure and have come back — in some cases they actually pitched better after the surgery than before. Tommy John surgery does not simply repair a damaged ligament, it replaces it. The goal of the procedure is to make the arm stronger than it was before the surgery. And isn’t it an irony (or, if you prefer, isn’t it nauseating) that the Nationals got the news on Strasburg on the same day that Jordan Zimmermann returned to the mound 12 months after having his own Tommy John procedure — and was able to throw well and without pain.

Is the news “devastating” for the Nats? It would be crazy to argue that the Strasburg news will have no impact on the club. It will. There’s little doubt that the 2011 rotation will suffer without his presence. But to believe that Stan Kasten or Mike Rizzo (or Jim Riggleman), have stated that they are “stockpiling pitchers” because they just happen to love pitchers is perverse. They know. They know that a certain percentage of pitchers will blow a ligament, tear a cuff or strain an elbow — and somebody will have to come in to take their place. The Nats have plenty of young pitchers who want to be in the show, and while none of them have the talent of the phenom, the team is not without hope. Then too, the era of free agency ensures that, should a team lose its best talent to the D.L, it’s possible to sign a savvy and healthy veteran (like, well . . . Tommy John) who can revive a franchise’s fortune. In 1974, while Tommy John was rehabbing from the first-ever Tommy John surgery, the Dodgers finished in second place in the N.L West. But two years later (in 1977) the Dodgers won the pennant — because of Tommy John, who had his best year ever (20-7, 220 innings, 2.78 ERA). Tommy John’s injury was “devastating” for Tommy John, but not for the Dodgers — who did just fine without him. They did what all ball clubs do: they compensated.

Is the kind of injury that sidelined Tommy John — and that is now sidelining Stephen Strasburg — a new development? Does it somehow signal some kind of systemic problem with developing major league pitchers? Weren’t pitchers just “tougher” in past years, and aren’t “these kids” being coddled just a bit too much? This is complete nonsense. The reason that Warren Spahn and Juan Marichal (the two examples most prominently cited, because of the Spahn-Marichal marathon) were able to pitch as effectively as they did for as long as they did is not because they “sucked it up,” but because they never suffered career ending ligament damage. If they had (in the era before Tommy John surgery) their careers would have been over. They weren’t tough, they didn’t “suck it up” — they were lucky. High school baseball, football and basketball squads of the 1960s were littered with coaches whose damaged arms ended their careers. They didn’t refuse to tough it out: they were out of baseball because their arm was “dead.” The difference between then and now is not a difference in “character,” it’s that now we have Tommy John surgery — back then we didn’t.

The news on Strasburg is bad news. It’s very bad news. But Tommy John surgery is not a death sentence. Not even close. It’s an injury — and it will take time to heal. There will be months and months of rest, even before rehab. “The kid” is in for a long journey. But my bet is that he’ll return. Wouldn’t be nice for him to know that when he does — we’ll be there, cheering him on. It’s not time for Stephen Strasburg to suck it up, it’s time for Nats fans to suck it up.

Marquis Is Back, Nats Fall

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

Nats starter Jason Marquis appears to be all the way back from surgery to remove “foreign bodies” in his elbow, pitching masterfully in 7.1 innings against the Chicago Cubs at Nationals Park on Wednesday. But the New Yorker’s outing did not result in a win, as the Cubs victimized the Nationals’ bullpen and went on to register a win, 4-0. The victory sealed a Cubs’ sweep of the three game series. Marquis, who the Nationals signed as a free agent in the off season, received a standing ovation as he walked from the mound in the 8th. “I was attacking the strike zone,” Marquis said. “The more I’ve been throwing, I’m creating better habits and allowing myself to make those pitches in the bottom of the zone. I let my defense do the work, which I have done the last few years. It’s definitely exciting to be back.”

After successive games in which the bullpen shut down the Cubs, Tyler Clippard and Sean Burnett pitched poorly — with Clippard yielding a double to Cubs rookie shortstop Starlin Castro, scoring Tyler Colvin from first base. That was all the Cubs would need. After the loss, Nationals skipper Jim Riggleman seemed to respond to rising complaints about the Nationals losing streak — and rising criticism of his decision making: “I’m certainly disappointed in our record,”  Riggleman said after the game. “I know our guys are playing hard, they are giving effort. The intensity is there, the hurt is there. We are suffering. We’re getting beat. I don’t like getting beat. I’m sick of it. I know our players are. It’s a game of character. Our character is being tested. We have to pass that character test.”

The Wisdom Of Section 1-2-9: You know that fans are losing heart when they begin to give away their tickets. This is what’s happening in Section 129, as an entirely new cohort of “fans” showed up for the Zambrano game, including a New Yorker who was (I swear) the spitting image of actor Chazz Palminteri — the tough talking “Agent Kujan” of “The Usual Suspects.” He and his friend (a separated at birth twin for New York cop — and Kujan sidekick — Sgt. Jeff Rabin) elbowed their way into my row in the top of the 3rd inning, pushing aside the regulars. “Hey buddy, you’re in our seats,” the Kujan look-alike said. I shook my head. Kujan held out his tickets: “Oh yeah?” The tickets said he and his friend were actually in Section 130. “You’re over there.” He eyed me for a minute: “We’ll sit here.” Okay, fine. But I had an overwhelming urge to ask him whether he’d ever heard of Keyser Soze. I tried to remember the line, but couldn’t — and then, suddenly, it was there: “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” I thought about it for a minute, but let it go.

“Agent Kujan” ignored me, but then started chatting in the 5th — I was keeping score and he looked at my book. “Hey buddy, you’re really into this.” I nodded: “It’s my diversion.” He gave me a crooked smile. “What the hell’s that mean?” I thought for a moment. “A hobby.” This seemed to satisfy him, but in the 6th he began peppering me with questions. “So they got nothin’, I mean the Nats — they got nothin‘.” Well, I said, they’ve got Zimmerman. He nodded: “The third baseman, yeah — sure. But that’s it.” And Dunn, I added. “Yeah,” he said, “but outside of that, they got nothin’.” I shrugged: well, and they’ve got “the kid at shortstop” and “the new pitcher — Strasburg — and . . .” He didn’t like it: “Listen buddy, I’m tellin’ ya, they got nothin’. Believe me.” Half an inning later he took it up again. “If they’re so good, why ain’t they in first place?” Good point, actually. “They don’t have any pitching,” I said, nodding. His buddy leaned across Kujan, his eyebrows up. He wagged his finger. “First thing you said — first thing you said.”

Kujan tried again in the 7th. “Hey buddy,” he said. “Who’s that shortstop up in New York? You know — the good one.” You mean Derek Jeter, I responded. “No, no. The other one.” Verbil Kint? Dean Keaton? Kobayashi? “Jose Reyes,” I said. “Yeah, that the one. Now there’s a heck of a ballplayer.” His buddy nodded vigorously. “Too true. When you’re right, you’re right.” Ah, Mets fans. That explained everything. But Kujan was just getting started. “You know, the Cubs are going to have a new manager next year. Could be anyone.” I nodded, and mentioned that I heard that Joe Girardi or Joe Torre might be interested in the job. He was insulted, shaking his head — Palminteri like. “You kiddin’ me? No way. Let’s me tell you something buddy,” he said. “Joe Torre ain’t gonna take it. No way. He loves it out there in L.A. And who wouldn’t, that what I say. And Girardi? You think a guy’s gonna move outa New York to go to Chicago?” I guess you’re right, I said. His buddy chimed in: “When you’re right, you’re right. That’s what I always say. When you’re right, you’re right.” By the 8th inning, with the Cubs ahead by five, Kujan had had enough, elbowing past me. “Good talkin to ya,” he said.

And like that — poof. He was gone.”

The Princes of Chavez Ravine

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

Once upon a time there was a pitcher who was nearly as celebrated as Stephen Strasburg — a phenom, a whiz, an over-the-top fastballer whose mid-90s down-in-the-zone pitches defeated even the best hitters. But Dean Chance will not go down in baseball history as Hall of Famer or even as one of baseball’s near greats, but rather as a one-time memorable figure whose talent and savvy brought him from the small Ohio hamlet of Wooster to the hallowed streets of Hollywood. Those were the days: when Hollywood legends packed the stands of the Dodger Stadium (which the expansion Angels shared with the N.L. legends), to oggle the young and brash stalwarts of “the singing cowboy’s” newest entrants into the Yankee-dominated American League. The most celebrated Angel of all was Robert Boris “Bo” Belinsky, the lefty throwing pool hustling playboy-athlete whose 1962 no-hit, no-run feat against Baltimore’s Orioles launched him into the headlines — and into the arms of (among others) Mamie Van Dorn, Connie Stevens and Ann-Margret.

In spite of their attraction to L.A. celebrity-wood, the 1961 expansion Angels were predictably poor. But the 1962 Angels were a fairytale, matching the Yankees in win for win as Hollywood oohed and ahhed and celebrated — prematurely. The Angels went through a late-season swoon and finished third. But with the storied, oh-so-handsome and charismatic Belinsky (a former “street rat” from New York by way of Trenton), on the mound, everyone thought the future was bright. The Angels would conquer both the Yankees and the American League  — and Bo Belinsky (handsome and blessed with a flash-bang smile), would lead the way. It was not to be: after his meteoric rise, Belinsky’s fame undid him, drowning a  promising career in years of dissipation — until (in later life), he became a reformed alcoholic and born again Christian living in Las Vegas (of all places). And as Belinsky fell, so too did the Angels, reverting to their losing ways and finishing 9th in 1963. Thus, Bo Belinsky.

Not Dean Chance. Like Belinsky, Chance was young and handsome. And, like Belinsky, Chance could pitch — could pitch so well, in fact, that he left hitters shaking their heads and walking back to the dugout. But that’s where the similarity ended. Unlike Belinsky, who dreamed of stardom and Hollywood and beautiful women, Chance dreamed of baseball. And unlike Belinsky, street smart and tough, Chance was a small town boy who grew up on a farm. Then too, Chance was dedicated to the game and, while he “ran” with Belinsky (and became his lifelong friend), he was never awed by flashing cameras, beautiful women — or the glitter of Hollywood. While the young Belinsky spent his New York childhood dodging the cops and tossing nickels on street corners, the 6-3 Chance spent his Ohio childhood listening to the Indians on the radio . . . and dreamed of becoming a ballplayer. And when the Indians weren’t playing (when the  midwest winds wickered across Ohio’s cornfields), Chance spent his time dreaming about being a boxer. “When I was growing up I always wanted to be a ballplayer,” Chance recently told a baseball reporter. “But I always loved boxing, too. I grew up listening to and watching Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano. Boy, were they exciting.”

Chance was a “puncher.” He styled his mound tactics in the same way that ’60s boxers styled their straight-ahead heavyweight tilts — he bored in on hitters, ratcheting up his fastball into the mid-90s, before dropping it (unpredictably) onto the outside corner. In high school Chance was not only unhittable, he became the most talked about young hurler in Ohio baseball history. His high school records remain unequaled: he threw 17 no hitters at Wooster high school — the closest contender is another Ohioan, Tom Engle, who threw six straight back in 1989. In 1962, as Belinsky was making headlines (though he was only 10-11) and dating the stars, Chance began his own career with the Angels, forging a workmanlike 14-10 campaign. In 1963, both of them struggled: Belinsky was 2-9 and Chance was 13-18. But, just as Belinsky was fading, Chance was becoming a premier pitcher. In 1964, as the Angels struggled to finish just two games over .500, Chance compiled a breathtaking 20-9 record and became (at 23) the youngest player to that point to win a Cy Young award. His 1964 campaign remains among the most memorable in A.L. history, in large part because Chance pitched better against the Yankees than he did against any other team: “It’s Chance, not CBS, who owns the Yankees. Lock, stock and barrel,” Angel’s center fielder Albie Pierson said during the season. “When Dean pitched, the Yankees became a bunch of guys in pantyhose . . . they had no chance.”

Belinsky couldn’t keep up. As Chance was making baseball history, Belinsky was struggling with his control (he would go 9-8 in 1964), and with his personal life. Flitting from date-to-date, and being photographed with the glitterati, Belinsky’s lifestyle (his constant fist fights, most notoriously, with an L.A. Times beat reporter) and his interminable scrapes with the Beverly Hills constabulary — was wearing thin with Angel’s owner Gene Autry. After the end of the ’64 campaign, Autry decided he’d had enough and traded Belinsky to the Philadelphia Phillies. But Belinsky’s fame preceded him, as Phillies fans viewed the new duo of Bunning and Belinsky as Philadelphia’s salvation; the two even appeared together on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Back in L.A., farmboy Chance continued to labor; and while the Wooster native would never equal the near perfection of his Cy Young year, his ten-year career remains a talisman of consistency — he won 20 games for the Twins in 1967, an astonishing 18 of them were complete. His career nosedived after 1968 (when he was 16-16), and, in 1971, he retired to Wooster, where he became a boxing promoter and manager and formed a respected sanctioning organization — the International Boxing Association.

Now, at age 68, Chance will talk baseball (and boxing) with anyone who will sit and listen. “The greatest defensive player I ever faced was Brooks Robinson,” Chance told one reporter several years ago. “The greatest relief pitcher was Dick Radatz of the Red Sox. The toughest hitters I ever faced were Tony Oliva of the Twins and Carl Yastrzemski of the Red Sox. They always hit me the other way. If I had a runner on third and no outs, those were the last guys I’d want to see at the plate.” Chance says his biggest thrill as a major leaguer was winning the 1964 Cy Young award. That may well be. But for fans of baseball, the most memorable event in the life of the Ohio farmboy-made-good, came on this date in 1967, when Chance threw the best game of his career — a no hitter against the Cleveland Indians. That in itself might not be historic, except that Chance’s no-hitter was the second he threw that month. The first had come on August 15 — when he no-hit the Red Sox.

(above: Dean Chance as a rookie; below: Bo Belinsky in the Angel’s clubhouse.)

Sister Helen’s Baseball

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

The death of N.Y. Giants great Bobby Thomson on Tuesday at the age of 86, drove me back to my on-again, off-again sub-hobby of investigating what exactly happened to the “Bobby Thomson ball” — the one that Thomson launched on October 3, 1951 and that ended up in the left field stands at the Polo Grounds. Thomson’s “Shot Heard Round The World” gave the Giants the 1951 pennant (“the Giants win the pennant, the Giants win the pennant”), and ranks as the most memorable home run in baseball history. The Thomson home run lives on in film and book and legend. An important part of that legend is consumed with determining what exactly happened to the ball after it landed in the left field seats — where is it, who has it, and what is it worth? Those questions have engaged a generation of memorabilia hunters, amateur sleuths and famous authors –a gaggle of hobbyists whose obsession surely equals that held by a generation of cranks who wonder (still) whether there were shots from the grassy knoll.

How much of a mystery is this? A few years ago, a baseball auction house in New York offered $1 million to anyone who could produce “the Thomson ball,” which spurred a new round of “let no rock remain unturned” charnel house of baseball gurus and ghost hunters to begin the search anew. To no avail: the reward remains unclaimed, the ball unfound. The question of what happened to the “Thomson ball” is so consuming that even noted American authors and filmmakers have weighed in: Don DeLillo fictionalized the travels of the ball as a key dynamic in his novel Underworld (if you haven’t read it, you should), while Francis Ford Coppola, in the Godfather, has parkway attendants listening to the Thomson game when Sonny is murdered at a toll booth — a bit of apocrypha for sure, as we all know (don’t we?) that Sonny was murdered in 1948, not in 1951. Tsk, tsk, tsk. Then too, the flight of the ball sparked Giants followers and baseball afficianados to identify and question nearly every fan who was out in left field that day, going over and over the film of Thomson’s dinger as if it were the Zapruder film. Without appreciable result.

Still, I became convinced several years ago that author and baseball obsessive Brian Biegel has probably provided the best answer to the mystery. Biegel, whose father Jack claimed he bought the ball for $2 at a Long Island Salvation Army store, set out to prove him right — and (alas) ended up proving him wrong. After years of investigation, Biegel showed that a baseball loving nun (“Sister Helen”), who attended the Giants-Dodgers game in violation of her Franciscan convent rules, snagged the ball and carried it with her in a shoebox her entire life. When she died many years later in Albuquerque (and after a lifetime of selfless devotion to her order), her colleagues in the convent lovingly sorted through her personal belongings, found the ball and gave it to her sister. And what did the sister of Sister Helen do with the ball? She looked over the ball, shrugged her shoulders, shook her head and deposited both shoebox and ball in a landfill.

The Nats, Harper — and the Lerners

Tuesday, August 17th, 2010

After all of this time, and despite their uneven press, you have to give this to the owners of the Washington Nationals: they’ve apparently realized that they’re going to have to pay for talent. This wasn’t always so obvious: in the early days after the franchise moved from Montreal to D.C., the Lerners were castigated for their penny-rubbing paperclip-counting ways, as it became gut-wrenchingly clear that the moguls that owned the Nats were as concerned with the bottom line as they were with the team’s place in the standings. Or more so. Articles slamming the Penny Pinchers reached a crescendo in mid-2009, corresponding to both the team’s status as baseball’s worst team and the franchise’s continued woeful performance at the gate.

But things have turned around for the real estate developing dynasty over the last twelve months, the result of two events that took place on exactly the same day — and nearly at the same moment — exactly twelve months apart. Just minutes before the signing deadline for the MLB first year player draft in 2009, and just minutes before the closing of the same signing period in 2010, the Lerners shelled out uber millions of dollars to the most-talked-about young players in major league history: first-round-first-pick Stephen Strasburg and first-round-first-pick outfielder Bryce Harper. We’ll start with Strasburg, who was signed for four years and $15.1 million, the largest contract ever given a player out of the draft. And yesterday, just before midnight, the Nats signed Bryce Harper to a five year deal worth $9.9 million. That’s a lot of money for two players who, prior to their signing, had never played a major league game. But the Lerners signed the checks — for an exact total of $25 million.

It’s hard to argue that the Lerners have learned that (as they would be the first to testify) good investments yield good returns. The investment in Strasburg, for instance, has started to pay for itself — with an estimated additional $5 million increase in revenue in 2010 ticket sales alone. Then too, the sale of Strasburg jerseys has ensured additional revenue; it has been the bestselling baseball jersey this summer and outpaced the sale of any Nats jersey from any player — ever. It’s not much of a guess to speculate that Strasburg will now have some competition, as Harper jerseys (when they arrive), will rival anything “the kid” has sold. So it’s no secret: putting fans in the seats and eyeballs in front of a MASN broadcast will make the Lerner family financially healthy (or, rather, more financially healthy) than they were when the bought the franchise from baseball five years ago.

But let’s not kid ourselves: despite all the talk among baseball owners about how the game is really “a public trust,” it’s much more of a business — with success measured not simply by a team’s place in the standings, but by a franchise’s financial health. Players win games, but profits (big profits) make signing good players possible. Finding the right balance between the two, between investments and returns, is the key to all of this, though it’s only sometimes mastered. It’s hard to wrestle this equation into submission for small and medium market  baseball owners, though much less difficult in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. But it’s possible. The relationship between investments and returns has been mastered in Minnesota (as an example), but not in Pittsburgh, in San Diego, but not in Kansas City. And in Washington?

The D.C. market is the ninth largest in the country (that’s twice the size of Pittsburgh), with a potentially large television audience and a fan base that would be the envy of Minnesota, Pittsburgh or K.C. But in the first years of their tenure as owners, the Lerners acted as if the team was playing in Boise — they cut the payroll and trimmed away what they viewed as marginal baseball operations. If there was a plan here, it didn’t work: after the two year honeymoon with the team wore off, team attendance plummeted nearly at the same rate as team wins. In 2007, the Nats were paying out a mere $37 million in player salaries, an embarrassing amount of cash for what is essentially a large market team. But the Lerners must have gotten the message, which was hard to miss: Nats fans started voting with their feet. They stayed home. The result is that the team’s payroll level has increased in each of the last three years, to nearly $55 million in 2008, $60 million in 2009 and $66 million in 2010. The Harper signing is yet another indication that Mark Lerner is going to keep his promise: that “spending money is not gonna be our issue.” Great. Good. Now then, we need only one more piece of evidence . . .

Is Buck For The Birds?

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

If it weren’t so obviously cruel, we’d take this space to re-baptize the Baltimore Birds the “Showalters” — in the belief that the Orioles of the last twenty years would soon reflect the go-get-’em attitude of their new manager. But even Showalter (a veteran of turnarounds in Arizona, New York and Texas), is willing to admit that it will take more than a new manager to turn around the ailing Orioles: it will take good starting pitching, a revamped bullpen, eight fielders who know their business (and can swing a bat) — and a change in attitude that has been sorely lacking in Baltimore for the last two decades. It will take, as Showalter says, little “golden nuggets” that Showalter will sift out of the detritus that has become Baltimore’s soiled nest. “There isn’t anything too complicated about this,” Showalter said at his introductory news conference. Well, he oughta know.

Showalter comes with a reputation for being a “the ultimate baseball perfectionist” with “a militaristic attention to detail.” Not surprisingly, he’s made some enemies. In his first managing job in New York, Showalter did things his way, to the great irritation of owner George Steinbrenner. Worse yet, back in 1995 — when Steinbrenner put enormous pressure on Showalter to win, he did: but not enough for George. Then too, Showalter was getting more attention than “the Boss,” a line that Yankee managers knew they should never cross. And so it was that eventually Showalter resigned — after refusing Steinbrenner’s orders to dismiss two of his coaches. But Buck he didn’t go quietly. In the wake of his resignation, Showalter called Steinbrenner “Fidel” and said that sitting next to him on a team charter was “the worst flight I ever had.” The quotes ended up in the New York Times. Steinbrenner was enraged, though not because Showalter compared him to Castro (he probably liked that), but because he’d gotten the last word. Steinbrenner didn’t know the half of it. When “the boss” died earlier this summer, Showalter praised him, called him a friend, and then paid a compliment — to himself: “I was one of the managers he never fired. I resigned because he wanted to get rid of my coaches. He knew where people’s buttons were, and mine were loyalty to my coaches.” Rest In Peace, George.

The Steinbrenner-Showalter saga is certainly known to Orioles’ owner Peter Angelos (whom Birdland fans blame for the demise of their “once proud franchise”), so it might be considered a testament to Angelos that he would hire Showalter anyway. But Showalter’s enemy’s list (“He never even smelled a jock in the big leagues,” current Pale Hose manager Ozzie Guillen once said. “Mr. Baseball never even got a hit in Triple-A. I was a better player than him, I have more money than him and I’m better looking than him”), is complemented by more than a handful of detractors who claim that “the smartest man in the room” is overrated. These detractors point out that while Showalter is given credit for turning around the last place Arizona Diamondbacks, the real credit (they say), should actually go to D-Backs owner Jerry Colangelo. Colangelo signed Randy Johnson, Todd Stottlemyre and Steve Finley to lead the team into 1999 — and into first place in the N.L. West. But this isn’t damning with faint praise, it’s faint damning with just the right praise: Showalter knew his team wasn’t going to win with Andy Benes, Alan Embree and Devon White and he made that clear to Colangelo in the off-season. The lesson is now clear; not only will Bucky get the last word, he’ll insist that you spend some money. There are worse things.

So all of this is good news, right? Well, not exactly. While Showalter was the choice of Orioles’ owner Peter Angelos, it’s not a secret that team president Andy MacPhail preferred the lower key Eric Wedge. MacPhail might have had a point — one of the reasons that former Texas Rangers’ owner Tom Hicks had problems with Showalter is because of constant complaints that Buck kept the Rangers’ clubhouse in turmoil. As soon as Showalter’s hiring was announced, the inimitable Camden Chat ran a long piece by Rangers’ blogger Adam Morse (of Lone Star Ball), who commented that “Rangers players never knew exactly where they stood with Showalter, and that he preferred it that way . . . he either wanted guys on edge, or just simply wasn’t comfortable communicating directly with the players.” MacPhail wasn’t the only one questioning Angelos’ choice. Just this morning, Orioles icon Rick Dempsey took on both Angelos and Showalter, calling the hiring “the biggest mistake made here in a long time, and I’m not talking just today, I mean over the years.” Roughly translated, what Dempsey means to say is that Angelos should have hired a manager from within. Showalter is an “outsider” — he doesn’t understand Baltimore.

So there they are, the legion of critics who think that Buck Showalter is not the second coming: George Steinbrenner, Tom Hicks, Rick Dempsey and a huge crowd of Baltimore naysayers and former players who think that a manager with “a militaristic attention to detail” and a huge ego will be bad for the Birds. As opposed to? Well, as opposed to Ray Miller, Mike Hargrove, Phil Regan, Lee Mazzilli, Sam Perlozzo and Dave Trembley, men who presumably had no egos and could care less about details — and who led the Baltimore Orioles to precisely two postseason appearances in 27 years. These naysayers ought to listen to Orioles’ commentator Drew Forrester, one of a legion of sports gabbers that we (we here at CFG) never pay attention to. Except in this case: “This is the Orioles,” Forrester writes. “And we have about 4 players who can play. And maybe two pitchers. And a couple of other live arms that need some tutoring. Of the 25 guys on the roster right now, I can think of six I’d take on my team. I hope Showalter comes in, stomps his feet and demands better players from Angelos and MacPhail. I hope he’s a prick to deal with in the Warehouse and I hope he threatens to fight people if the roster isn’t improved and quality free agents aren’t pursued.”

Yeah, that’s right. So while Showalter has a controversial background and knows how to make enemies, he also has a history of winning. Which is hell of a lot more than you can say for either Peter Angelos or Andy MacPhail.

Hanley’s Team

Friday, July 16th, 2010

There’s something in each of us that doesn’t like a showboat. Muhammad Ali had a hard time catching on back in the early ’60s for precisely this reason and it’s why I never took to Eric Byrnes — who made several ostentatious attempts to collide with walls in pursuing deep fly balls. He once flapped his arms going backwards, just to show how hard he’d hit the bricks. Puh-leeeez. But, for some reason, showboating never bothered me when it came to Ricky Henderson or Mickey Rivers. And it doesn’t bother me when it comes to Mannywood either, though his case is a little different: Manny isn’t a showboat because he plays hard all the time and in every situation, but because he doesn’t. You can think of dozens of similar examples: I couldn’t stand Pete Rose’s “Charlie Hustle” routine, but loved it when Mark Fidrych sprinted off the mound. Fidrych was believable, Rose was showing off. Then too, I would have hated it if, say, Will Smith had done backflips at shortstop, but Ozzie Smith? Not so much.

Now then for the case of Hanley Ramirez, who is not only the most talented shortstop in the N.L., but probably the best shortstop in the N.L. Ramirez is as far from a showboat as possible, but he’s been accused of “dogging it” during games — which is widely interpreted by baseball pundits as hinting that he thinks he’s more important than the guys around him. That is, he’s a kind of showboat in reverse, an Eric Byrnes at half speed, a Mannywood of Miami. Back during the third week of May, for instance, Ramirez ran at half speed to first on an infield hit and then, the next day, he booted a ball and trotted after it . . . and after it . . . and after it. Fredi Gonzalez, the then-manager of the Marlins had had enough. He benched Ramirez and told him to apologize to the team. Cameron Maybin, Wes Helms and Dan Uggla all thought that would be a good idea. Ramirez refused. The situation was apparently cleared up after two days of sullen silence, when Fredi and Hanley “cleared the air.” Five weeks later, Gonzalez was gone.

While Ramirez has always claimed that his dust up with Gonzalez had nothing to do with his firing, you have to wonder. The Marlins have been down in the standings before and stuck with their manager. And Gonzalez was universally viewed as a top baseball strategist, all-around good guy and friend of the owner. In the end it didn’t matter. Just days after the firing, Bobby Valentine (another friend of the owner) was rumored as his “sure thing” replacement — but that never panned out. Was Valentine deep-sixed because of his view of the Ramirez situation? We can just imagine Valentine’s interview with fish owner Jeff Loria. “Hey Bobby, would you have benched Ramirez for not hustling?” And Bobby’s smiling answer: “You damn right.” The owner nods, squints, fiddles with the things on his desk and then gets up from his chair. “Thanks for coming.” As for Cameron Maybin, Wes Helms and Dan Uggla — well, they’re either headed back to the minors or they’re headed out of town.

Uncomfortable as it is, and as hard as it is to swallow, Hanley Ramirez probably has this right: he’s the best player on the team and maybe even in the NL East. And therefore (therefore), the rules that apply to Maybin, Helms and Uggla shouldn’t be applied to him. In fact, that’s what he said when asked if he’d lost respect for Gonzalez after he was benched. Yeah, he said. A little bit. “We got 24 more guys out there. Hopefully they can do the same things I can do. They’re wearing the Marlins uniform.” Here’s a rough translation: all baseball players are equal, but some are more equal than others. Or perhaps this — if you want to bench someone for dogging it, do it to a player who’s hitting .225. If Casey Stengel had actually benched Mickey Mantle for showing up for a game with a hangover (or worse), who do you think would have been out the door? And don’t claim that Hanley Ramirez is no Mickey Mantle. That’s not the point. The point is that Casey would never have benched Mantle. Ever. Because Casey knew what Gonzalez didn’t: managers don’t win batting titles.

Matt Capps . . . And Dean Stone

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

Matt Capps pitched to David Ortiz in Anaheim on Tuesday night — it was just one-third of an inning in the Mid-Summer Classic — but that was enough for the Washington Nationals reliever to register a win, a point of pride for fans of the Anacostia Nine. Capps whiffed “Big Poppy” on five pitches, the last an up-and-in fastball (95 on the gun) that sent Ortiz back to the pines. Capps’ relief effort not only helped Phillies big man Roy Halladay out of a jam, it gave the senior circuit a chance to rally for a much-needed 3-1 triumph. Capps was thrilled to be in the record books. “It feels pretty good,” Capps said after the NL victory. “I just came in to face one hitter. The guys did a great job of putting some runs up later. It worked out well, I’m very pleased with it, excited about it.” Capps is the first Washington pitcher to notch a win in the All Star game since Dean Stone, a lefty Washington Senator, did it for the American League back in 1954.

Capps undoubtedly wishes his career will be more stellar than Stone’s: Darrah Dean Stone played in a Washington Senators’ uniform for four seasons, after being drafted by the Chicago Cubs in 1949. The big (6-4, 205) southpaw was signed as an amateur, but spent his early career kicking around the minors before starting for Senators, Red Sox, Cardinals, Colt 45s, White Sox and Orioles. Stone finished his career after spending 1963 in Japan. Stone was never a particularly effective starter, except for the ’54 Senators, when his fastball and curveball finally worked in tandem, when he was 12-10 with a 3.22 ERA. Stone was a part of a staff that boasted proto-ace Bob Porterfield (22-10 in ’53) and former Bosox biggie Mickey McDermott. If Porterfield and McDermott had pitched in ’54 as they had in their previous incarnations, the Senators might have been good: but Porterfield had lost something on his fastball and McDermott was never the same pitcher he had been in Boston. That left the surprising Stone, who dazzled D.C. crowds in the first part of the season.

Neither Capps nor Stone were exactly afterthoughts in the All Star selection process, but neither of them were headliners. As Capps seemed eclipsed by the big guns of Jimenez, Johnson, Halladay and Wainwright, so too Stone was viewed as a single paragraph guy after Whitey Ford, Bob Lemon and Virgil Trucks. And unlike Capps, Stone was not the only member of his team on the the ’54 staff — with Porterfield and perennial All Star Mickey Vernon leading the Washington squad into Cleveland. The ’54 game turned out to be one of the more exciting All Star tilts in major league history, with the American League winning a nail-biting come-from-behind victory. Cleveland Wahoo Larry Doby provided the home town crowd with one of Cleveland’s great moments, spiraling a game tying home run into the left field seats to knot the score. With the bases loaded, Nellie Fox provided the winning single and the Americans were victorious, 11-9. Stone, who had pitched the eighth, got the victory, but he never threw a pitch. Instead, Stone caught Cardinal All Star Red Schoendienst attempting to steal home. Doby pinch hit for Stone in the bottom of the 8th and Virgil Trucks, closing out the game, preserved his win in the 9th.

No Surprise: The Phillies Will Grab the Flag

Friday, April 2nd, 2010

Roy Halladay, Baseball, Philadelphia Phillies

The votes are in and it appears to be unanimous: the Philadelphia Phillies are the New York Yankees of the National League — or rather, the Ponies are so good that the Yanks are the Phillies of the American. It’s not exactly a secret; the Phillies are that good. If there’s any curse on the Phillies it’s simply this: they’re on the front cover of SI, which might mean that their coming campaign will fizzle. But I don’t see how. The core of Halladay, Hamels, Happ, Howard, Utley and Werth (and the addition of an admittedly overpriced Placido Polanco) makes them the odds-on favorites in the NL Least, with the Tomahawks, Fish, Nats and Apples finishing as also-rans. It won’t be close.

What’s interesting about “the Least” is not the fight for first or even second (which will go, almost by default, to Atlanta), but the fight for third. Don’t laugh. The Marlins always seem to play over their heads, as they did for a time last year — when they were all the rage for fans who think that April matters. They’ll come back to reality in 2010 (or, being the Fish, they’ll take a bunch of mugs and win the World Series). Outside of Josh Johnson (as good a pitcher as there is in baseball) and Ricky Nolasco, their front four is shakey. They’ll have to count on Burke Badenhop to step up (how likely is that?), and outfielder Chris Coughlan will have to dodge the sophomore jinx. He won’t. True: the Fish have a power infield, with one of the strongest up-the-middle combos (with Ramirez and Uggla) in the MLB. But the Nats have their own power players, and if Stephen Strasburg arrives fully ready in June (or earlier), the front four of Strasburg, Marquis, Lannan and Stammen (and Hernandez) will regularly outpitch the Fish. So, given a little luck (and a healthy and as-advertised Strasburg), the NL Least will be 1) Philadelphia, 2) Atlanta, 3) Washington, 4) Florida and 5) New York. Or it won’t — and the Nats will suffer through a not-quite-as-bad-as-last-year season, and finish fourth.

So here’s the question: what the hell is wrong with the Mets? Well . . . maybe nothing. If Jose Reyes can resurrect his best years, if Jason Bay can be in New York what he was in Boston, if David Wright can be the bopper he was in ’08, and if the New Yorkers can find someone who scares hitters even half-as-much as Johan Santana — then the “boys of slumber” can finish as high as second. But that’s a lot of “ifs,” and a second act that features Mike Pelfrey, John Maine and a half-dozen question marks does not bode well for a team that, even when healthy, will have trouble winning 9-7 slugfests. This says it quite well: the Mets face “a rather inconvenient truth” — that even if healthy (which they’re not), they’re just not very good. So buckle your seat belts Mets’ fans: these are your daddy’s Mets.

As for the Nats — barring injury (there oughta be a default button for that phrase here somewhere), the Nats will bring the bats, and everything else will depend (as it always does) on pitching and defense. Both are better, but nowhere near where they should be. In our dreams Adam Dunn has a fantasy player year (of close to fifty dingers), Ryan Zimmerman becomes all-world (and finishes as a runner-up in the MVP voting), Adam Kennedy returns to form, Matt Capps becomes Joe Nathan (sans injury), and the platoon in right field is filled by someone like this guy. If that happens then anything is possible . . .

Since this is baseball, and anything is sometimes just not possible, the kind of season the Nats will have will be obvious for all to see within the season’s first twenty games. The bullpen is better, but it’s still iffy, and the team will need to find an early spark. I agree with the SI assessment: the early spark for the Nats will have to be Nyjer Morgan. A fast start for the fleet-footed center fielder will build confidence in a team that (after the 100-plus losses of ’09) sorely needs it. That means the pressure is on; Morgan will be expected to run the Nats into (instead of out of) games, and he’ll be expected to use his speed to make up for a shaky corner outfield defense. Which is simply to say: if Morgan proves to be the spark we expect, then the Nats will not only have a better 162-game outing this year than they did last, they’ll actually be a pleasure to watch. Especially when they play the Mets.