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Baseball’s Best Month: 2012 Edition

Under the Lights

The baseball playoffs are underway, with the first ever Wild Card games going today, before the League Division Series commence the first proper round tomorrow afternoon. The wild card play-in is an innovation I quite enjoy. Not only does it add two more games, but it adds an incentive to winning your division. Do that, and you’re guaranteed entry into the best-of-five division series. Come up short, and instead be forced to go through a single-game elimination, where anything can happen.

I love playoff baseball (as I do with nearly every form of baseball). Rarely does a year pass by without at least one or two signature, memorable moments. Last year gave us the Chris Carpenter-Roy Halladay duel in Game 5 of the NLDS, the unforgettable Game 6 of the World Series (with David Freese’s heroics), and other great moments. We don’t know what this year holds, but there are many exciting players and teams involved. Here’s what I’ll be watching for in October.

Before that, a word about the teams that just missed the playoffs.

The Los Angeles Dodgers accomplished two things that I appreciate. First, they took a bunch of bad contracts off the Red Sox’s books. Second, they rehabilitated Hanley Ramirez’s fantasy value after acquiring him at mid-season. Yet, I’m glad they missed the playoffs. With an ownership group that’s willing to spend a ton of money, they’ll likely be a regular playoff team for the foreseeable future. So, it’s nice to see some different faces, as we’ll soon get tired of seeing the Dodgers every October.

Across Orange County, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are another perennial playoff team, so seeing them miss out isn’t too disheartening. Yet, after what must be the greatest rookie year of all-time, I would have loved to see Mike Trout get a chance to continue that effort in October. Trout was also a part of one of my personal favorite moments at a ballgame.

At a Rangels-Angels game in Anaheim at the start of June, Trout managed to steal the show. He hit a triple that keyed the Angels’ comeback win, and when taking his spot in center field the next inning, our section in right-center gave him a standing ovation. Love little moments like that that won’t show up on the TV broadcast.

I do, however, feel bad for the Tampa Bay Rays. Despite finishing 2nd in the AL in run differential (and 3rd in MLB), they finished 3 games out of a playoff spot, behind the Orioles, whose run differential was 113 runs worse. There’s talk they’ll lose James Shields from the rotation, and while they’ll still have key players like Evan Longoria and David Price, their window to win on a small budget narrows every year they miss out.

Now, for the playoff teams:

Wild Card
As a child of the ’90s, it’s nice to see the Atlanta Braves back in the playoffs, and the Ted rocking at playoff home games. Closer Craig Kimbrel has had an outstanding year, after he looked burned out by Manager Fredi Gonzales’ poor handling of the bullpen down the stretch last year. It’s also Chipper Jones’ last season, and I’ll take as many bonus Chipper games as I can get. He’s been one of the best players I’ve seen, and one of the first I’ve been able to follow for his entire career. Seriously, I even had his Score rookie card as a draft pick in 1990 draft (I remember also having Mike Lieberthal, Steve Karsay, and Todd Van Poppel ones that summer in 1991). Suffice to say, he was on my radar even before he cracked the big league club. I’d love to see him go out on a high note.

On the other hand, I’ll be happy with St. Louis, one of the game’s great franchises, moving on as well. It’s nice to see them thrive after letting Albert Pujols go, only finishing 2 games of their 2011 pace.

In the American League, it was great to see the big spending Texas Rangers pushed into the wild card playoff after getting swept by Oakland in the season’s final series. I hope we see lots of shots of a frustrated Nolan Ryan in tonight’s playoff game.

Baltimore, with a +7 run differential, has to be one of the luckiest playoff teams ever. As an underdog, they’re hard not to like. Any vitriol I had against them for eliminating the Red Sox last year has since been redirected towards loathing the Sox themselves. That said, putting a finesse pitcher like Joe Saunders against a right-handed heavy, mashing Texas Rangers lineup is asking for trouble. I’d love to see an upset (tonight, then against the Yankees), but I’m not counting on it.

Jeter

Division Winners
The New York Yankees never seem to go away. If they win, I’ll be happy for Ichiro, and that’s it.

The Detroit Tigers are star-heavy, with Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera and ace Justin Verlander leading the way. Cabrera’s triple crown is a remarkable feat. It hasn’t happened in 45 years, and a batting triple crown is roughly twice as rare as a pitching one, which speaks to its difficulty to achieve.

It’s hard not to cheer for the Oakland A’s. They’re in the playoffs for the first time in 6 years, with their first true post-Moneyball playoff club. Still strapped with a small budget, they no longer have an underappreciated statistic to exploit (as far as we know). Instead, Billy Beane is exploiting the oldest market inefficiency in the game, general manager decision-making ability. He got Yoenis Cespedes for $9M/year, accumulated loads of young pitching talent in return for the old core of his rotation, and poached 30-homer Josh Reddick from the Red Sox for closer Andrew Bailey. While Reddick broke out, Bailey’s highlight (as far as Sox fans go) was his extended stay on the DL. Seriously. He posted a negative WAR in his brief appearance post-DL.

On another note, your heart has to go out to this A’s club. Brandon McCarthy was in life-threatening condition after taking a line drive in the head just over a month ago. Then, on the day the A’s clinched the division, he tweeted this photo and note about his dad’s terminal illness, which will probably make you cry at least a little bit. Then, that night, horrible news that Pat Neshek and his wife lost their son less than 24 hours after he was born.

In the National League, the San Francisco Giants are back two years after winning the World Series with a very similar team. They have a strong starting rotation, and Buster Posey, a successful rookie in 2010, is now a bona fide star. His recovery after a leg injury has been remarkable.

The Cincinnati Reds have finally cracked the playoffs, behind young stars like Joey Votta and Jay Bruce, and their pitching staff led by Johnny Cueto’s breakout year, and lights-out Aroldis Chapman in the bullpen. I’m happy to see them doing well after so many tough years. Mat Latos has been an excellent addition to their rotation, and it’s nice to see that his trade worked out for both sides exactly as it should. He has helped them to the playoffs, while the Padres are building around the young talent they got in return, such as Yonder Alonso and Yasmani Grandal.

However, I’m rooting for the Washington Nationals. I have an affinity for them as the zombie Expos, and I got to see perhaps their most exciting game of the year in person (like Trout, Harper hit a key triple that was absolutely thrilling to see in person). They have an exciting young team, and are building a following in what has been a tough market for baseball (they lost the Senators twice, and had few bright spots when they did have a team). Bryce Harper has started to break out in the past month (too late to save my fantasy team!), and even with Strasburg shelved, their rotation can compete with anyone. A World Series run from this team would be exciting for the sport as a whole, in my biased opinion.

Whoever wins, though, I think we’re in for an exciting month of baseball. It will be a great finale, then the wait for the first day of spring training will begin.

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One Night in September

It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart.

The words of former baseball commissioner, and lifelong Red Sox fan Bart Giamatti echo through my mind as I replay a 10 minute sequence that ended baseball’s regular season. Sure, a couple teams played on, but for all intents and purposes, the season came to a rare, dramatic climax late in the September evening along the Atlantic coast.

As Joe Posnanski wrote so eloquently yesterday, baseball largely revolves around anticlimax. More often than not, the predictable happens. Then sometimes, you get events like Wednesday night. Everything held to form for a while, but some time around 9:30 EST, when it starting raining in Baltimore, the script went out the window (ESPN has a timeline of the major events). About 3 hours later, the dust settled on one of the most unpredictable, memorable nights in baseball history.

I won’t go into detail recapping the events. St. Louis dominated Houston, capping a marvelous September run to the NL wild card. Atlanta’s worn out bullpen faltered when it needed to come through, the culmination of Atlanta’s own September dive, driven by a pitching staff beset by injuries and overwork. Tampa Bay, behind their ace David Price, fell behind 7-0 to a less than full strength Yankees club. With all but the scrubs out of the New York lineup, the Rays rallied, scoring 6 in the 8th, and hitting the game-tying homer with 2 outs and a 2 strike count in the 9th. Boston gripped to a 1 run lead from the 5th inning on as their closer, Jonathan Papelbon, took the mound in the 9th. After getting the first 2 men out, 3 straight doubles by Baltimore scored 2 runs to end the game. What felt like seconds later, Evan Longoria homered to win the game in Tampa Bay, ending Boston’s season. What had been a 10 1/2 game lead 4 weeks earlier was gone.

Night
The Red Sox’s season died on a Wednesday night in Baltimore.

The rationale side of me, the pure baseball fan, loved Wednesday’s drama. There were three memorable games with lots at stake. If I could show last night to everyone who wonders why I love baseball so much, they wouldn’t wonder anymore. The night ended with small market Tampa Bay, one of the best run organizations, winning on a walk-off from one of the game’s best players. Even a Red Sox fan wouldn’t begrudge the Rays.

But that’s the thing. I’m also a Red Sox fan. And being a fan of a specific club is inherently irrational. There is no reciprocity in this relationship. I don’t get input into who the club signs or trades, the club doesn’t know I exist, and I doubt it cares about me any more than any other data point in its market research. I’m okay with that. As I said, being a fan requires a suspension of rational thinking.

But the highs of being a baseball fan Wednesday were tempered by the lows of being a Red Sox fan. Given their state, had they advanced, the Sox were likely to go out in the first round. This doesn’t take away the success of 2004 and 2007. But, it is a low point I haven’t felt since Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS (which was much much worse). The Sox built a team to win in 2011, but they fell far short. They didn’t have the depth to recover when injuries cut into their pitching staff. One of their star acquisitions played like a league average outfielder. Many of their hitters went silent down the stretch.

What lingers is the feeling of lost opportunity, and the worry that the opportunites may not come again, or may be fewer and far between. They haven’t won a playoff game since 2008. They play in a division with the ever-powerful Yankees, the talented Rays, and the ascending Blue Jays. With aging players at key positions, success may be hard to come by for Boston these next few years.

Meanwhile, the games go on. Baseball fans, myself included, look forward to 4 weeks of playoff competition. Tonight, Detroit ace Justin Verlander tries to steal a win at Yankee Stadium. Saturday, Milwaukee – the smallest market in the game – kicks off their pennant run against young, surprising Arizona. It’s Milwaukee’s last chance to win before star slugger Prince Fielder, a free agent to be, likely leaves for greener pastures. Philadelphia, behind it’s stellar rotation, will try to win the championship – which would be the first for aces Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. Texas aims for a repeat trip to the World Series, and St. Louis tries to squeeze another run out on aging core, one that could break up as soon as this off-season if Albert Pujols moves on. The next 4 weeks will surely produce more memorable moments; if any of them approach Wednesday night, baseball fans are in for something special.

And then next year in the spring, as Vin Scully says, “everything old is new again”. Hope and promise will return. Maybe the Red Sox will rebound, and this collapse will be an aberration, not a return to form. But in the meantime, I’ll just enjoy being a baseball fan these next 4 weeks.

Playoff Predictions:
Yankees, Rays, Phillies, Brewers.
Brewers over Yankees in the World Series.

Priority of Cheering in the Playoffs:
1. Brewers
2. Phillies (for Halladay to win a World Series)
3. Rays
4. Tigers
5. Rangers
6. Diamondbacks
7. Cardinals
8. None of the Above
9. Yankees

The Last 42

Mariano Rivera

Earlier today, Mariano Rivera set the all-time saves record, eclipsing long-time San Diego Padres closer Trevor Hoffman. Rivera, in his 16th season with the Yankees (and 15th as their closer), figures to add to it if he can stay healthy, and surely will be inducted into the Hall of Fame when he retires.

Now, I’m firmly in the ‘saves are overrated’ camp. All 27 outs in a game are equal, and it doesn’t make sense to save your best pitcher(s) for a hypothetical situation an inning or two ahead. But, that’s not Rivera’s call to make, and he’s done what has been asked of him at an elite level for a decade and a half. Even disregarding saves, Rivera has some impressive accomplishments:

– His career WHIP is 0.99, an incredible achievement. He also averages 8.2 KO/9.
– In his 16 years of relief pitching, he’s had a WHIP of 1.1 or greater only twice.
– In 94 career playoff games, he averages 7 KO/9, has an era of 0.71, and a WHIP of 0.766.
– He has appeared in at least 45 games every season since 1996, never missing a substantial part of any season. It’s rare for a pitcher to stay so (relatively) healthy so long.
– That consistency is remarkable. Anyone who plays fantasy baseball will tell you how erratic relievers are from year to year.
– His 94 career playoff games are roughly equivalent to adding a season and a half to his workload over 16 years. That he’s remained healthy and consistently excellent is also remarkable.

One of the neat things about Rivera is that he will be the last player to wear the number 42, Jackie Robinson’s number. In tribute to Robinson, MLB decided a number of years ago that every team would retire the number, meaning that no other player (except those wearing it at the time, who were grandfathered in), would ever wear it. Rivera is the last one, and his on-field impact is a fitting tribute to a man who wasn’t just a pioneer, but a great ballplayer.

As an aside, one of the things I enjoy about soccer is how certain jersey numbers carry a significance, and are considered an honor to wear. For example, goal scorers are issued the number 9 (Newcastle United calls it the Shirt of Legends), and the number 10 jersey is an honour reserved for playmakers and leaders on the field. Wouldn’t the ultimate tribute to Jackie Robinson be to do something similar with the number 42? That only players who had accomplished great things got to wear it? For example, in addition to Rivera, the Cardinals could have Pujols wear 42, Roy Halladay would be Philly’s 42, and there would be discussion right now about whether Justin Verlander deserved the #42 jersey. It would also make for a fun term when discussing truly great players, arguing whether or not a player was a ’42’. Anyway, I digress.

I’ve appreciated Rivera’s talent and performance since he broke into the majors. The first time I saw him was in a relief appearance in Game 2 of the 1995 ALDS, when he toyed with Seattle Mariners hitters and pitched 3.1 scoreless innings. He’s been a part of some of the most memorable moments of the past 15 years, amazingly in a losing role for some. He blew a save in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, which seemed unfathomable at the time. As a Red Sox fan, I have fond memories of him giving up the tying runs in Games 4 and 5 of the 2004 ALCS. I’ve also had the pleasure of seeing him pitch in person. I caught a Yankees-Mariners series at Safeco Field in 2009. Seeing Rivera warm up then walk in from the bullpen gave me chills. Later in that series, he was part of a great moment at the ballpark.

One of the things I enjoy most about seeing games live is the little things television doesn’t pick up. Watching players (teammates and opponents) interact, the way players move and shift defensively, and seeing the impressive feats some can pull off in batting practice are a highlight of any visit to the park. After the Sunday afternoon game, where the Mariners won comfortably. After the game, all the unused relief pitchers (including Rivera) left the bullpens and walked back towards their dugouts. Along the way, the Mariners bullpen stopped Rivera, surrounding him and chatting with him for a few minutes:

Rivera and Mariners Bullpen

I can only imagine what they asked him, but this gesture struck me as the ultimate sign of respect. There would only be a handful of players who would be treated in this way. When I think of Rivera and his achievements, the numbers come to mind, and tell most of the story. But the reaction of a handful of opponents, the last, and one of the best to wear number 42, says a lot about what he means and what he’s accomplished too.

4 Days at Safeco

Safeco Field, view from the Left Field entrance.

Safeco Field, view from the Left Field entrance.

As part of my trip to Seattle, I visited Safeco Field to catch some baseball. The New York Yankees were in town to play the host Seattle Mariners from Thursday to Sunday, and I caught all four games between the two teams.

If a picture is worth 1000 words, then my photo gallery from the games tells the full story in 315,000 words. I recommend you check it out. What follows here is a much-abridged summary.

The Games
In case you’re curious, the Yankees won the first one in a blowout, earned hard-fought wins in the second and third, then the Mariners stormed back to win the final game of the series. The roof was closed for the first one (it had rained heavily earlier that day), but we had great weather for the rest of the series, so the roof was open. The games (and the city as a whole) were flooded with Yankees fans for the whole weekend. You couldn’t go anywhere inside the park, or outside of it without seeing Yankees apparel.

The Area
Safeco Field is located near the central district of Seattle. It’s situated south of the King Street Amtrak station and Pioneer Square, and just to the west of the International District. Qwest Field, home to the Seattle Seahawks and Seattle Sounders FC, is directly north of Safeco. The surrounding freeways and railway lines isolate the park somewhat from the surrounding areas, making it tough to tell what, if any, impact it has had on redevelopment in the area. There is the Silver Cloud Hotel across the street, and up the street parallel to Qwest Field and the parking lot between Qwest and the Amtrak station there are refurbished warehouses and infill developments.

The Park
For better and worse, Safeco Field has most of the trappings of the post-Camden Yards ballparks.

First, the good. The brick exterior adds a nice retro touch (it’s designed to mirror Ebbets Field), and also meshes with the character of the surrounding area. Like most of the new parks, the sightlines are excellent, and most seats offer an unobstructed view of the field. There are a ton of food options, everything from hotdogs to sushi. I’m partial to the garlic fries from Grounders’. Also, there is one beer stand that offers imports/microbrews at a reasonable price. I indulged in Bard’s gluten-free beer, which was a pleasant surprise to find.

Mariano Rivera of the Yankees pitches to the Mariners.

Mariano Rivera of the Yankees pitches to the Mariners.

Leaving aside the constant gimmickry with attempts to rally fans on the video screen and through music, my main criticism of Safeco is that it feels like I could be watching a game….well, anywhere. There are a couple of nice touches that distinguish the park. First, from the first base side you get a nice view of the downtown Seattle skyline. Second, the adjacent railroad lines mean you hear a constant (and I mean constant – about every 5 minutes) honking of horns from railway engines as they arrive at or depart from the King Street station. But beyond that, the park itself feels like it could be anywhere. The other post-Camden park I’ve visited is Citizens’ Bank Ballpark, in Philadelphia. It’s also a great place to watch a game, but I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what distinguishes the two once you’re inside and watching a game. Safeco has a retractable roof, while Citizens’ Bank is open air. I guess that would be it.

Final Thoughts
For all my criticisms in the last paragraph, on the whole the experience was really enjoyable. As a huge baseball fan, I’d probably enjoy watching a game anywhere – I even have fond memories of the Big O. Nonetheless, Safeco is a very nice park, and offers a good atmosphere for watching baseball.