Saturday, December 06, 2014

Hero worship versus sports as entertainment

It has not shocked me in recent weeks to read stories about Jayson Werth getting ten days in jail or the varied reports on people like Bill Cosby or Adrian Peterson. Those who are fortunate enough to become very good at high visibility skills such as sports and entertainment are artificially built as superstars. But they are people. Just as we are all people.
Hero worship has never been a problem for me. From the earliest age, I seemed to have a build in knowledge that we are all created equal. And as much as it pains the modern person, those ideals came from a Judeo-Christian mindset. I happen to believe them. We are all just people muddling our way through life as best we can. At its basest level, we all are birthed in a bloody mess and eat and poop and sleep...even star players and entertainers.
I did have heroes growing up. I loved Mickey Mantle and Mel Stottlemyre and others. But my hero thing was based on enjoying what they did on the ball field and the familiarity of having watched them regularly. I've written myriads of thousands of words on Derek Jeter as a fan of his game and not not on his "mystique" or image.
Much of hero worship has come from writers and journalists. The Old West was a real starting point as writers built false images of Davy Crockett, Wyatt Earp and outlaws like Billy the Kid. Sports writers carried on that tradition and built legends out of Babe RuthTed Williams and Hank Aaron. Jeter is just the latest to be lionized beyond reality.
You see it with this image of Torii Hunter as the ultimate team guy and we on Twitter now have a lot of fun at poking holes at "scrappy" players. The bottom line is how a player performs and how his team fares, but we still have writers who make a living creating legends that go beyond results.
Part of the reason stat-based writers have risen to such heights is that in this post-Watergate era, many have swung the other way and love when icons are brought down from the lofty spots they hold in public imagination. Ryan Howard became a lightning rod between the myth-makers and Howard's RBI totals and stat-based writers who poked holes in his game.
So we have kind of come to a weird place in the history of public perception. There are those looking for demons behind every celebrity's tree and those that are still creating icons. Both still sell, which makes it all that much more confusing.
When I first moved to northern Maine and went back to school (some twenty-four years ago now), I worked at a hotel for three years. That will open your eyes about the human race. George Mitchell was the second most powerful man in the country at the time and used to call for a room. If reservations were full, his handlers would insist I find a place for him.
My answer was, "Let me give you a list of the reservations and you can tell me who I should tell not to come."
The answer was always, "Do you know who George Mitchell is?"
My answer was always, "I don't care if he is the Pope, I don't have a room."
I once had to deal with a national news correspondent for one of networks. One day he came down the elevator and asked how much the paper was. I said, "For you, it's free." His answer was that just because he was on TV, I didn't have to give him a paper for free. I told him politely that all of our customers get a free paper and that's what I meant.
The actor who played the lead on the early television show, Dark Shadows, stayed for a week. Every single day I had to show him how to get to the hotel restaurant.
They are all just people. Just like we are all just people. When I hear writers talking about those suspected of using Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) as, "Cheaters," it gets to me because they were just people making a decision about what could make them more money more effective at what they did. Which of us would avoid that decision if it could mean millions of dollars and the Majors versus the Minors? Apparently, a large share of the baseball player population made that decision. Few resisted. And yet we judge those we know about because of that same George Mitchell. Funny that.
When I view sports--particularly baseball as that is my wheelhouse--I view and am entertained by the performance in the scheme of the game. I view actors in a movie the same way. They are skilled people performing a skill-seeking task. I watch a good carpenter the same way. Performance is entertaining. Skill is entertaining.
But skill has never equaled a higher grade of person for me. I admire the work of a great carpenter, but I don't think that carpenter is better than the person who makes a mean sundae at Friendly's.  And frankly, the president of the United States can be of any skin color, gender or sexual orientation as long as they do a good job.
Having such a view means that I am not heartbroken when Ryan Braun gets caught or fall for stories about how great a guy Torii Hunter is.
People are people. Those who get paid a lot of money are just like you and me. Just like us, they make a thousand decisions a day and just like us, some of those decisions can be costly. I try very hard not to judge others and I will not judge players or famous people who get caught up in scandal. There is a higher power who will do that judging.
And on the other side of the coin, I do not build idols of gold for players or the famous because they are skillful at a high-profile career. They either entertain me or they do not. Nothing more and nothing less. I encourage you to view them this same way and teach your children the same way. We are all created equal. Some just get paid better than others.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

The Orioles are leaking

General Managers are only as good as their team's performance in the past season. Dan Duquette was genius last season as the Orioles surprised everyone with blowing out the AL East and making it to the American League Championship Series. Duquette brought in pieces that worked perfectly such as Nelson Cruz and Andrew Miller. But so far this off season seems to show a general leaking of talent as Cruz, Miller and now Nick Markakis have been allowed to sign in greener pastures. Will the Orioles be one and done?
Such a pronouncement in December with almost five months of the off season yet to come would be misguided. But the Orioles have allowed at least six wins of offense and two wins of relief pitching to head out the door. In the long run, these decisions may be wise as the total expense of those players long term might be painful. But in the short term, Orioles fans might be getting a little antsy.
The Red Sox and Blue Jays have improved themselves greatly thus far--at least on paper. The Yankees have been spinning in place and the Rays seem in disarray (but with a still promising rotation). If you compare teams in the AL East, you have to look at the Orioles as an 89-win team after losing that talent. Can they make it up in other ways? Perhaps.
The team still has a strong core in Adam JonesJ.J. HardyManny MachadoChris Davis and Matt Wieters. There are questions marks among that group. Can Davis bounce back off a disappointing season and stay clean? How will Wieters respond after missing so much time with a rebuilt elbow? Can Machado's knees hold up or is this a chronic season to season thing? But let's, for now, assume that those folks will all contribute ably.
The starting staff will return all the same pitchers back into the mix even though Bud Norris has had his name rumored in trades all winter. They are not a great rotation, but with good defense, they get the job done. The loss of Miller will hurt, but the bullpen was pretty good before he even got there and that same cast is back for another season.
With that much stability (barring injuries), how can the production and play of Markakis and Cruz be made up?
Markakis is probably the easiest to replace. No knock on the guy as he has been a very good player for the Orioles. But his offense has only been about seven percent better than league average and that is not as hard to replace as you think. The most obvious answer seems to be Dariel Alvarez, the Cuban refugee the O's signed in 2013. He has raked pretty consistently in the minors and while he is not that patient a hitter, he does hit enough to replace Markakis if his minor league play is an indication.
The only other minor league options such as Mike Yastrzemski and Josh Hart are still a year or two away.
Harder to replace is Nelson Cruz. While Cruz never saw a pitch he didn't like to swing at, his power is a high commodity in today's market. How do the Orioles close that gap? To me, expecting Steve Pearce to repeat his season last year also seems to be dicey. So that is a lot of power to replace.
Let's say that Wieters comes back as good as he was. That is a plus total of 17 homers over the five he hit last year before he was hurt. If Chris Davis can be somewhere between his monster 2013 and disappointing 2014, he could hit 35 homers and add seven more to the total. Platooning Davis with Christian Walker might produce the same results with a better overall batting average.
I'm not sure Jonathan Schoop will ever develop into an effective MLB hitter. His thirteen walks for all of 2014 are a red flag to me as it led to a .244 OBP. But he could add another six homers to his total of 14 last season. And add to that a bounce-back power year for J.J. Hardy who was way below his career yearly homer output last season could make up some more.
If all of that goes well, which, of course, is a big if, the Orioles could make up the power lost by Nelson Cruz. Whether they can overcome the lack of Cruz's presence in the lineup is a very big question.
Like I said, there is a lot of off season left to go and I'm sure Dan Duquette is not going to stand pat. Adding Melky Cabrera or someone of that caliber might still be a possibility.
But even if Duquette stands pat, as I have outlined, the Orioles might be okay as is. The core is still there. For the most part, a team built on defense and a winning attitude instilled by Buck Showalter could keep the Orioles in the mix. Only time will tell if this General Manager will go from hero to bum or whether he was shrewd to let those players walk when he did. I wouldn't count the Orioles out.