Saturday, March 04, 2006

Baseball, the Beatles and Hobbits

The Fan was going to write about teams with new managers this year, but maybe that will wait until tomorrow. Why is baseball such a defining sport in some people? The Fan has to consider that other sports may hold the same passion for others that is baseball here at heart. All that can be said is that there are three defining themes that underline life for this author: Baseball, the Beatles and Hobbits.

To some, there is the belief that we all long for Eden. The heart yearns for the simple, the beautiful and the fulfilling. But we've been kicked out of the garden and the simple always turns to complex. At first, we accept the complex and believe that it's an evolutionary necessity. We are mistaken of course and find whatever we can that brings us back a bit to the garden.

Baseball was and is such a haven. From childhood to having a giddyup when crossing the street, baseball is a trip back to the garden no matter how crazy, sad and messed up life can become. Even the ball parks are these emerald green islands in the middle of grey cities.

That's not to say that baseball is always stress free--and not just with drama and close games. Between labor issues, drugs, corked bats, hold outs, lock outs and the Chicago Black Sox, there have always been threats to the game.

And there is evolution with the emphasis on conditioning, statistics, specialists and technology. But take the game back to the field and it's simplicity itself. It's the same simplicity that some find tedious. No matter how evolutionary, as the commercial says: "It's still 90 feet from third to home."

This isn't the space to delve into the place in the soul held by the Beatles and Hobbits, but these are Edens for the Fan and so is baseball.

Friday, March 03, 2006

The Body Fails Us

The Fan has a bum knee. It hurts so badly that the simple act of kicking off a pair of slip-on shoes sends shards of pain throughout the body. The situation has led to reflections of athletes who prematurely faced the breakdown of their bodies. There is an appreciation for the desire to at least attempt what is now beyond reach. The reflection gives new appreciation for why Jeff Bagwell is in Spring Training.

Jeff Bagwell has hit 959 extra base hits in his career. 449 of them were homers. Remember that most of his career was played in the of the worst hitting parks ever. He has a lifetime on base percentage of .408. Between runs scored and runs batted in, Bagwell has contributed to 3046 runs for the Houston Astros.

He has been an All Star and a heralded player for a dozen years. He is the worst front office mistake made by the Boston Red Sox since Babe Ruth.

But several years ago, Bagwell's shoulder deteriorated to the point where he couldn't even throw the ball. Remember that Bagwell is not old by baseball standards. He is only 36 and it is certainly understandable that Bagwell wants to do what he's done his whole life.

The Fan's reflection led to memories of other players over the years who struggled the same way with youthful desires to do things their bodies no longer had the ability to fulfill. Some had some success in the attempt. Others tried and couldn't make it happen. Here are a few of those memories:

Rico Carty
Rico Carty came up as an outfielder with the (then) Milwaukee Braves and hit well over .300 for five of his first six years with the team. Carty's last two years with the (now) Atlanta Braves were spectacular with batting averages of .342 and .366.

Carty then began a series of lost years as chronic injuries derailed his promising career. The advent of the designated hitter in the American League allowed Carty to hit, and though it was painful to watch him limp around the bases, he did some damage for the Indians, A's and Blue Jays. Although Carty had some good batting years, particularly for the Indians, he was never the player he could have been.

Don Mattingly
Don Mattingly had a four year run rarely seen in the history of MLB. Besides being a perennial gold glove first baseman, Mattingly averaged 46 doubles, 30 homers, 121 RBI, and 210 hits. His batting average during those years: .343, .324, .355 and .327. He was widely held to be the best player in the game. He was the Pujols of his time.

Back problems short circuited his career and he couldn't muster 20 home runs for the last six years in his career. He finally retired after only 13 years.

Tony Conigliaro
Tony Conigliaro, or "Tony C" as his passionate fans used to call him, led the American League in homers at the age of 20. Two years later, after 95 games, Conigliaro was beaned by a Jack Hamilton fastball and never fully regained the full vision in his damaged eye.

Tony C missed all of 1968 but returned in 1969 and received the Comeback Player of the Year award as he came back to hit 20 homers. He hit 36 the following year, but his vision plagued him and, at the age of 27, was finished as a ball player. Tragically, he had a major heart attack ten years later and died at the age of 55.

Tony Oliva
The same year that Tony Conigliaro hit the scene in 1964, he battled another Tony for Rookie of the Year and might have won if he hadn't broken his arm in August. The other Tony...Tony Oliva, ended up winning the award as he hit 32 homers and batted .323.

For the next eight years, Oliva was one of the most exciting players in baseball. But Oliva blew out his knee and lost all of 1972. The injury was so severe that Oliva's career would have been over. But he also benefited from the new designated hitter rule and was able to prolong his career as a DH for three more years, but never to the effect of his earlier years.

He played long enough for the Fan to remember his limp, even more pronounced than Carty's.

Frank Tanana
Frank Tanana could throw the ball through a wall when he first came up for the California Angels in 1974. He struck out 269 batters in his second year (in 257 innings!) and in the following year, struck out 262 while winning 19 games. He also led the league in E.R.A. that season.

But after a few years, Frank Tanana blew out his arm. The story is similar to dozens of other players over the year. But Tanana loved baseball and adapted to become one of the best and most crafty pitchers for another 15 years. Tanana won 158 more games after blowing his arm out and ended up with 240 career wins.

Frank Tanana is a good place to end this retrospective. His win for the Tigers on the final day of 1987 put them in the playoffs. Tanana's unique tenacity makes him overlooked for the Hall of Fame, where he belongs.

With this throbbing knee, the Fan is rooting for Jeff Bagwell.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Who Are Those Marlins?

You can tell the Florida Marlins had another "cleansing" this off-season when, behind Miguel Cabrera, Wes Helms and Pokey Reese, their most experienced batter is probably Dontrelle Willis. If Florida's fans like young players, this year should be their nirvana.

The Fan has to wonder how the loss of all those experienced players will affect Cabrera. The young star has improved every year in homers, runs batted it, average, on-base percentage and slugging and last year blossomed into a full-fledged star. Will anyone pitch to him this year? And if not, will Cabrera lose the patience that he has steadily gained over the past two years?

The Marlins have an incredible 17 rookies on their 40 man roster and eight others have three years of major league service or less. Two of those eight are viable stars in Willis and Cabrera. The rest are a collection of young players that are unproven. It could be a fun year for Marlin fans...or it could be a very long one.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Nasty Stuff?

There was an article on today about Derek Lowe that got the Fan thinking of pitchers labeled in recent years with "nasty stuff." The three that come to mind are Lowe, Jeff Weaver and A.J. Burnett. Far too often, nasty stuff for these three has meant stinging hands for the winning team.

Lowe is the only one of the three who has won more than 50% of his games. And that, in large part, is due to his one brilliant 21-7 year with Boston. Lowe also has the advantage of seizing a big game and making himself part of something special. He has been the hero.

The rest of the time, Lowe has only been so-so with a lifetime E.R.A. of 3.84. Last year's so-so year has been explained by off-field problems. Okay, let's see what happens then. Lowe does have the advantage of pitching half his games in Los Angeles, a good pitcher's park.

Weaver has always had nasty stuff. In watching several of his games over the years, what you see is the story of his career: two nasty slider strikes and then a double in the gap. Weaver has a career earned run average of 4.44 with a sub-.500 lifetime record. In Detroit, he looked like an up and coming star. And then he hit New York.

Unlike Lowe in Boston, Weaver folded in New York like a bad American Idol contestant. He has put together two unremarkable years for the Dodgers. His stats show the enigma he is. His WHIP (walks plus hits compared to innings pitched) was terrific at 1.17. But he gave up 35 homers and lost 12 games to his 14 wins. And though he won his last four decisions, he only pitched well in one of them.

A.J. Burnett is the younger of the three and as such, garnered a big contract in free agency this off-season. But is a big contract of merit to someone who has a career record of 49-50? Like Weaver, Burnett had some pretty impressive stats last year. He struck out 198 batters in 209 innings. But he was still 12-12.

Burnett finished with three straight wins, but by then, the Marlins were out of it. When they were still in the race, he lost seven straight.

Now Toronto has pinned part of its hopes on the 49-50 star. Like Lowe and Weaver, sooner or later, Burnett's "nasty stuff" has to translate into more wins than losses.
No Other Game

There is no other game like this. There is no game with the history, the subtleties, the nuances, the speculation, the expectation, the statistics and the aura. And there is no other time of year like this one. The winter has been long, but after months of rain and snow and freeze and thaw, baseball is alive again. Spring Training is here.

We have the Olympics out of the way. Football is speculating on the draft. Major League Baseball blooms like the first crocus of spring and like the first flowers, you never know what to expect or what range of colors will appear this year.

Major League Baseball is this rich continuing book that writes a new, fresh chapter every year and gives as much anticipation as the next Harry Potter book.

Will Clemens pitch again? Will Damon put the Yankees over the top? Will Pedro help resurrect the Mets? Will Toronto be a force again after a dramatic off-season? Will Mike Lowell return to greatness and have a big season in Boston? Will the White Sox repeat? Contend? Will Soriano play left field? Will Bonds come close to Aaron? Will Griffey stay healthy? Will Texas get enough pitching? Can the Pirates or Royals ever get to .500? Who will be the breakout star? Who will have a career year? Whose career will crash and burn?

Last year's breakout stars were Derrek and Carlos Lee. How many of us saw that coming? After the previous year and a half, who would have wagered that Andy Pettitte would win 17 games and have the best second half in baseball? Who saw Bob Wickman saving 45 games?

And so we start fresh. Forget about steroids. Everyone is watching now and no one wants to have to bow out like Palmiero. Forget about labor issues. The two sides never were more cooperative or more fearful of a work stoppage. Baseball has always had side issues. But they still have to play the games and no one knows how they will turn out.

Football has overtaken baseball as the sport of the day, but that's all it is: A day a week. It's an exciting day, it's true. But MLB is a 162 game adventure where we are sure to see things we've never seen before, even though we've watched with interest for decades. The Fan loves football. But MLB is the PASSION.

And this is the time of year where the passion takes hold and a thousand memories are rekindled and expectation is rampant for the start of something new and exciting. Here we go, fans. Our new garden of delight is about to bloom again.