Friday, March 17, 2006

Yesterday and Today

A couple of years ago in this spot, it was mentioned that we are living in the best time to be a fan of Major League Baseball. With instant access to games, statistics, analysis and commentary, everything is right there for the Fan. But is it really better? Let's take a look at some major areas and compare eras.

The Game: It would be easy to say that the game was more pure in the past. There wasn't the big money. The players were less athletic and so on. Money was just as much a part of the game in the 60's as it is now. The teams with more money then could keep their great players. Those without the money traded their second tier stars to keep one or two franchise players. The Senators didn't have money. Other teams did.

The top athletes of the 60's rival those of today. Cesar Tovar was as athletic as Alfonso Soriano. Injuries occurred then as now with no less frequency. The one major difference is that pitchers can get Tommy John surgery when they blow out their elbows. That allows pitchers to hang on longer than in the past.

Other than that, the game is mostly the same. There are still nine innings and the game's strategy ebbs and flows just like before. The biggest changes since Harmon Killebrew played are:

1. The closer. A starting pitcher was expected to pitch nine innings then. Advantage today? Not really. The starter was a better pitcher in those days than anyone in the bullpen. The bullpen was full of guys that weren't good enough to start. Now they have blow-them-away-for-three-outs specialists. The results are the same: The losing team makes a comeback, or doesn't. It's a wash.

2. The Designated Hitter. It's been quite a while now since Ron Bloomberg (Yankees) collected the first hit by a designated hitter. Before the DH, there was a weak hitter in the eight hole who barely got anything to hit and then the pitcher. The pitcher, if a good hitter, might have a batting average of .167 and would either strike out or lay down a sacrifice bunt.

Now, there is an extra bomber in there swinging the bat, meaning higher run production and careers for those all hit and no field kind of players. "Purists" will claim that the DH is unnatural and removes strategy. That may be so, but the Fan's 45+ years of watching baseball qualifies him as a "purist" and the Fan would much rather watch David Ortiz rattle a baseball off a wall than watch the manager go out to the mound, pull the pitcher, remove the left fielder, sacrifice bunt, pinch hit and all the other semi-boring "strategies" the DH nay sayers enjoy so much.

Advantage to the present.

3. The Umpires. The umpires are much more aggressive now and will show up a player and instigate arguments. That never happened in the past. Plus, the strike zone is more like the twilight zone. Today's strike is from the top of the knees to the top of the belt and from two inches off the outside of the plate and two inches in from the inside edge. The strike zone is terrible and it has changed the game. In order to prevent a walk, a pitcher has no choice but to put the ball in most player's happy zone. As a Fan a "purist," the strike zone is not enforced correctly.

Advantage: The past, which makes the game a wash.

Television: ESPN has changed the landscape. The highlight shows in the evening are a godsend for the happy fan. At first it was good enough to get baseball game highlights in between the other sports on SportCenter. Now, there is Baseball Tonight with highlights, lively banter and commentary.

Plus, you can watch three or four games a week on ESPN, four or five from TBS and, if your cable company still gets WGN, four or five Cub games. This is great except, if you are a fan of a home town team, free television used to carry every game of the season. WPIX in New York showed every Yankee game from the start of the season to the finish. That's gone with the advent of cable. You can pretty much watch a team's every game, but it's going to cost you.

Camera angles and instant replay from several angles have been major improvements. The biggest improvement? Color television. Oh come on. Some of you watched the games in black and white.

The broadcasters seemed to be a bit better back then. Phil Rizzuto wasn't polished, but he was much more fun than the slick and secure Mr. Buck on Fox broadcasts. The analysts are better prepared now and seem much less hokey than the old days of retired players collecting easy paychecks.

Advantage: Today.

The Writers: There are good writers today. Peter Gammons is the star among stars. The Internet gives you instant access to many baseball writers but there doesn't seem to be the substance there used to be. All the writers are either trying to find some statistical analysis made possible by mass databases, or they are trying to be flashy and cute.

There was nothing like getting the Sporting News on a Friday and spending three hours reading the best writers in the country. They talked about the game and the players and what it all meant in personal terms and with exciting depth. Gammons is the only one today who comes close. His new blog means he is writing more and that's manna from heaven.

On the other spectrum, Buster Olney fills his blogs with links to other articles all over the Web. Who wants to click here and there and resize the window to read someone else's small article. What do YOU think, Buster? That's what we want to read. It was better to turn the page.

It was also better when some of the dirt was left under the rug. The writers respected the player's privacy and wrote about the game. Now, there is the infernal rush to be first to expose a star to shame. Thanks, but that isn't fun for the Fan. But you can't blame today's writers. Watergate opened that floodgate.

Advantage: The past.

Statistics: The Internet is such a huge factor for the statistical junkie. Up to the minute statistics are at the fingertips at bat by at bat. With a few clicks, you can sort leaders for hits, doubles, RBI, ERA, BA, slugging, OBP, saves, wins and many others by player, by position or by team. How good is that!

In the past, you had to wait until the Sunday paper, or the Friday arrival of the Sporting News. But there was something fun about following those long lists of stats in the paper as one looked for favorite players. Maybe it's hindsight, but it seemed a bit more magical then.

Advantage: Today (you just can't beat having all that information instantly)

Going to the Game: First of all, going to the ballpark was a safer experience back in the 60's. There was crime, but not the fear that is walking today's city streets. Plus, for $3.75, you could get in the bleachers and buy a soda and snack. That made for an everybody type of crowd. Blue collar, white collar, blacks, whites, urban and suburban, we all became one at the ballpark.

Today's prices have closed out the game to most of the middle and lower classes. Going to the game is more of an event or a privilege and not the experience gained by the everyman. There were no cell phones. The ballpark wasn't filled with only the Docker crowd and SUVs. The ballpark was a bonding experience. Now it is more of an experience the more well to do can experience.

Of course, once you are there, the experience is the same, with the stir and the excitement. There is still the anticipation, batting practice, watching the infield dampened and raked. It's still pretty darn special.

Advantage: The past.

The Ballparks: MLB has done a great job at going back to making distinct and wonderful ballparks. The trend of the past toward cookie-cutter, astro-turfed and sterilized parks is going away for good. There is much concern about losing older parks such as Tiger Stadium and soon, Yankee Stadium.

Advantage: The present.

The Players: For those of us who have to work for a living, the players needed more say in their careers and their future. The ownership of the past were slave laborers and revenue sharing should be somewhat equal between ownership and the product.

As the players have become richer, however, it is harder to identify with them as those of us who had dreams of youth that came true. They aren't us anymore. They are more like movie stars with pimped up rides and fancy clothes.

Since so much money is at stake, the players are more concerned with their conditioning and that had the side effect of the steroid issue. After all, the temptation to take steroids are much greater if it can mean a five year, $40 million dollar contract.

It seems that ownership and labor have gotten the message and are working together at cleaning up the game. Once accomplished, the fans will have more faith and trust in the product they are watching.

But still, it all comes back to the money, which means that the average fan can no longer relate to the players they are rooting for.

Advantage: A wash.

Let's tally the score. There were a couple of washes, a couple of the pasts and three votes for today. The final analysis is that today's Major League Baseball is a slightly better product than in the past.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Take Five

This is a great time of year. It's not as great as when the real games actually start. Think of a hungry man anticipating a night at a new restaurant. To actually eat will be the bomb. But to anticipate what might be on the menu gets the blood pumping before dining. In the spirit of anticipation, here are some lists of what might be on the menu.

Five AL players who could have breakout seasons:
1. Jorge Cantu - Tampa Bay: In reality, he already broke out last season with 28 homers and 117 RBI. But few noticed. If he does it again or picks it up another notch. He will be noticed.

2. Robinson Cano - New York: Cano got his feet wet and Torre ran him out there every day. He's had a season to learn what he can do. Now he can become a star.

3. Joe Mauer - Minnesota: He knows his strike zone, puts the ball in play and now in his third year, could break out to be a big star. His 61 walks with only 64 strikeouts bode well for his future.

4. Jhonny Peralta - Cleveland: If he can cut down on his strikeouts and put the ball in play more, he will greatly improve his decent .342 on-base percentage and 24 homers as the newest power shortstop.

5. Dan Johnson - Oakland: In Johnson's first big chance last year, he walked 50 times in 375 at bats to go with 15 homers and 58 RBI. If he gets the playing time, Johnson can be the next big star.

Five AL stars who could slip to age this season:
1. Jorge Posada - Yankees: Posada's on-base percentage, slugging percentage and RBI were at their lowest levels last year since 1999. He's 35 now, which is long in the catching tooth.

2. Mike Timlin - Boston: Timlin's season last year was deceiving. He did have an E.R.A of only 2.24. For the first time in several years, he gave up more hits than innings pitched. And his WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched was his highest since 2001. He is 38 this year.

3. Jeff Conine - Orioles: Conine has been a personal favorite for a long time, but the man is 38 and has always played hard. He may be a role player at best for the Orioles after a fine .304 season last season.

4. Garret Anderson - Angels: Anderson has had a nice career. He hasn't reached a hundred RBI for the last two seasons after four in a row previously. It just seems that he has slipped.

5. Eddie Guardado - Seattle: Everyday Eddie is 36 and though he had 36 saves last year, he had his lowest strikeout to innings pitched ratio in several years. Look for him to slip further this year.

Five most important AL players to their team's success:
1. David Ortiz - Boston
2. Mariano Rivera - Yankees
3. Vladimir Guerrero - Angels
4. Michael Young - Texas
5. Travis Hafner - Cleveland

Five biggest AL question marks:
1. Hank Blalock - What happened to this once promising career?
2. Mike Lowell - Is he really done as a player?
3. Darin Erstad - Was that one year a fluke?
4. Adrian Beltre - Seattle must be scratching its head.
5. Vernon Wells - This once budding star has had some aphid problems.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Devil Rays Could Be Maddoning

If the Devil Rays can get any pitching at all, Joe Maddon's Devil Rays could drive some teams (like the Yankees) crazy. Maddon brings more fun to the Devil Rays than the taciturn Lou Piniella and is intent on running the Devil Rays all over the league--and the Devil Rays have the legs to do it.

The image is still painted painfully of Game 5 of that fateful League Championship Series with the Yankees up 3-0 with a one run lead and six outs to go. Dave Roberts is up first against the great Mariano Rivera. He walked. That single walk led to a stolen base, a single and a tie score. The Fan knew the series was over with that walk. That's what speed does to teams like the Yankees. It was the secret weapon.

And the Devil Rays drove the Yankees crazy last year. The Rays will be even better this year. Rocco Baldelli is back after being injured all of last year. Carl Crawford becomes more and more of a star each year. Julio Lugo knows how to get on base with a .369 on-base percentage. Jorge Cantu burst on the scene last year. And all kinds of talented young players are on the way.

Aubrey Huff needs to stop his downward trend the last three years where his statistics in every category have fallen. If he can get back to where he was in 2003, the Rays will be even more dangerous.

And then there is Maddon himself. The Fan loves Lou Piniella and has since he awkwardly played right field in New York and hit the cover off the ball to all fields. But the man seemed in pain the last couple of years. He is such a competitive and impatient man that the losing seasons weren't part of building something. It was more of a bitter taste for him. But Maddon has a sense of humor that will connect with his players, with the fans and with the media.

The Devil Rays may be a year or two away from contending, but they will make stodgy teams like the Red Sox and Yankees nuts.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Doesn't Ring a Bell

The Kansas City Royals hired another new manager this year. David Gus "Buddy" Bell became the Royals' fourteenth manager in their young history. Forgive the Fan if Bell's management history (with his 345-462 career managing record) doesn't give much optimism for the Royals.

Perhaps this is an emotional reaction. The Fan had a drunk of a stepfather nicknamed, "Buddy." That must be it. Or maybe it's just the name, "Buddy," that is the problem. The name invokes a good old boy. Could you report to a boss named, "Buddy"?

It's never easy to understand the relationship between the manager and the team's bottom line performance. Is Joe Torre a great manager, or has he just benefited from having the best players money can buy? Did Casey Stengel suddenly get great when he joined the Yankees and then get really terrible when he finished with the Mets?

So one has to give Mr. Bell the benefit of the doubt. So what does he have to work with? He has a few good players, a few question marks and a whole lot of young people.

Of course there is Mike Sweeney, one of the good guys of the game. Sweeney wants to stay with the Royals in the worst way, and he deserves that distinction. He's been a great player for a long time and being 33, it would be easy to understand wanting to finish where he started. But there is one question to ask here.

Does Sweeney stay because it is comfortable and if so, does that make him a winner? It reminds the Fan of a worker who stays in a decent job and turns down promotions because it feels safer to stay where he is. If Sweeney has endured ten years of losing, does that make losing okay? And now he has a manager that is used to losing. Hmm...

Emil Brown was one of the best surprises of 2005. But few are aware of it. Here is a guy drafted by the Athletics eleven years ago. In five years, Brown batted 404 times in the major leagues with 81 hits for an even .200 batting average. From 2001 through 2004, Brown didn't get any major league at bats. Then he got a job for the Royals.

Brown played 150 games for the Royals and batted .286 with 17 homers, 86 RBI, ten stolen bases in eleven attempts and finished with an on-base percentage of .349. What a great story! Here's for rooting for a repeat performance! Go Emil!

The Royals actually signed a few free agents over the winter that people heard of! Reggie Sanders, most recently of the Cardinals, will provide great fielding and occasional pop with his bat. Sanders is now 37 and is seven homers shy of 300 for his career. Kansas City is a hard place to hit homers though and Sanders could have warning track power there.

Sanders can also run the bases and even at the age of 36, stole 14 bases in 15 attempts. He is just three shy of 300 in that area as well and will easily join the 300/300 club.

The Royals also acquired Mark Grudzielanek and Doug Mientkiewicz to play second and first respectively and respectfully. Mientkiewicz is a wonderful first baseman of questionable hitting prowess. But great fielding first basemen are vastly underrated in helping a team win ball games. The Fan just feels sorry for the equipment guy who has to sew those names on the uniforms.

John Buck, behind the plate, is a decent player who could improve greatly by being more patient when batting. He only walked 23 times in 400 at bats last year. Between Ivan Rodriguez and Buck, the two A.L. Central catchers had less than 40 walks between them!

David DeJesus is another young player that had a good year last year. The home-grown Royal batted .293 with a .359 on-base percentage.

The pitching is where the Royals get dicey. The combined record of newcomers Joe Mays (formerly of Minnesota) and Mark Redman (of just about every other team in the majors), along with K.C. hurler, Runelvys Hernandez was 19-39. Ouch.

Scott Elarton was a nice pickup. He had an 11-9 record with the Indians last year and could flourish further in pitcher friendly Kansas City. But the Royals didn't help themselves at all in the bullpen with just Mike MacDougal the only bright spot out there.

The Fan hopes that Zack Greinke can sort out things and return to his career. He has a job that most of us can only dream about. It would be great if he could learn to enjoy it.

After reading back this post for edit, is it the Fan, or do the Royals have the strangest player names in baseball? And they lead the league in players with names ending in the letter "O" (Paul Bako, Andres Blanko and Andrew Sisco).

Names not-withstanding, Buddy Bell will have to hope the pitching staff gives him something to work with or his career .428 winning percentage will dive further south.