A Summer Without Baseball

Major League Baseball is tying itself in knots over the decision whether to have some kind of baseball season this year.  So far this summer — and we’re more than two-thirds of the way through June, the third full month of the normal baseball season — we’ve had no games, and the baseball coverage has been all about fitful negotiations between the players and the owners.

brj-2010-summer-060It hasn’t exactly been a rewarding season for a baseball fan.

The current proposals don’t really resemble baseball as we know it.  The players and owners are debating a season that will have somewhere between 50 and 70 games, whereas the normal season has 162 games.  The owners apparently have withdrawn their proposal for expanded playoffs and also are offering a universal designated hitter for 2020 and 2021, which means National League fans won’t be able to watch pitchers at bat or the managerial strategery that flows from the fact that most pitchers can’t hit worth a lick.  And all of the wrangling is happening against a backdrop of the country opening up after the coronavirus shutdowns, with some states experiencing increases in the numbers of cases and hospitalizations.  Already there are stories about how some players are testing positive for COVID-19, and we can expect to see more of them.  Ultimately, if the players and owners can’t negotiate their way out of a corner, baseball’s commissioner may have to unilaterally impose a dramatically shortened season — which some players could simply refuse to participate in.

It’s a mess, and it raises a fundamental question:  should there be a baseball season at all this year?  What’s the point of playing a truncated, gimmicky season that will amount to a small fraction of the normal season?  On the other hand, can baseball afford not to play, when viewership and attendance have been declining for the past few years and the stench of the Houston Astros cheating scandal remains in the air?  If there is no Major League Baseball this year, will the sport be able to recover in 2021?

I enjoy baseball and follow the Tribe, but I find I am not missing watching games or following the team this year.  2020 has been such a weird year already that not having baseball just seems like another, easily accepted feature of this masked and misbegotten period we are experiencing.  We can expect that money will call the tune — it always does in professional sports — but if I were the Commissioner I’d just call the season off and plan for baseball’s return, for a real season, in 2021.

And by the way, there is still some baseball being played in 2020.  My Facebook feed features pictures of little kids’ games.  If you like summer baseball, there’s still a way to get your fix.

South Korean Baseball

Because there are no live American sports to be broadcast — and people can only watch that Michael Jordan documentary so many times — ESPN has decided to start broadcasting games from the Korea Baseball Organization, the South Korean major leagues.  ESPN is hoping that American sports fans who know nothing about the Korean league or teams will nevertheless tune in to provide that taste of live sports they have been craving.

download__2_I don’t know beans about the KBO, but I enjoy reading about sports teams in other countries and, especially, the team names.  My favorite foreign sports name is the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, a Japanese team that doesn’t contemplate battling hams, but instead is managed by the Nippon Ham company — which is the cause of the curious name.  The Korean league apparently has a strong corporate element, too, with team names that include Samsung and Hyundai.

If you’re inclined to watch a game and are trying to decide who to root for, here’s a list of the teams in the league:  Doosan Bears, NC Dinos, Samsung Lions, Lotte Giants, LG Twins, Kiwoom Heroes, KIA Tigers, SK Wyverns, Hanwha Eagles, KT Wiz, and Hyundai Unicorns.  I like the rugged confidence of the Kiwoom team self-describing its players as “heroes,” and I also was intrigued by the Wyverns, the Unicorns, and Wiz, who obviously don’t care that they have the same name as an old Broadway musical and movie starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson.  But if I’m going to watch a game I’m going to be pulling for the NC Dinos, just because their mascot is a formidable, long-necked dinosaur who looks like a cross between Godzilla and a bodybuilder.

Will American sports fans tune in the KBO — where games, apparently, will be played in empty stadiums with banners stretched across the seating area that depict fans wearing masks?  I’m guessing yes.  Baseball is baseball, and South Korea has produced a number of players who have made it to the American major leagues, so the talent level is undoubtedly pretty good.  And the players might be trying even harder than usual if they know that American fans, and American scouts, will be watching.

Go Dinos!

 

Thinking Baseball Thoughts

The other day I got a welcome ping from my cellphone.  My ESPN app — after providing countless NBA-related “alerts” and “news” that I didn’t really care about — reported on the score of a Cleveland Indians spring training game.  The Tribe lost, but I didn’t care about that, not really.  I was just happy to see that spring training had begun and progressed to the point that games were being played.

1883887If spring training has begun, spring itself can’t be far behind.

Baseball is changing.  I ran across a story about how Major League Baseball has entered into an agreement with the independent Atlantic League that will allow MLB to use the league to try out modified rules and equipment changes.  Under the deal, the Atlantic League will implement new rules at the request of MLB and then provide data and feedback on how the rules changes work out so MLB can decide whether to adopt the changes at the big-league level.  And get this:  the rules changes that supposedly are being considered include moving back the mound and having Trackman — in effect, a robot umpire — call balls and strikes.

As the article points out, the Atlantic League has been an innovator in baseball, including initiatives to speed up the game and to force umpires to call the high strike — i.e., strikes that are within the strike zone but above the belt.  Now they can use Trackman to ensure that the true strike zone gets called.  And because the Atlantic League is full of veteran pitchers, many of whom have MLB experience, it is thought that they will be better able to adjust to proposed changes in the location of the pitcher’s mound.

To be sure, baseball has changed over the years — it’s hard to imagine bigger changes than the introduction of the designated hitter in the American League and adding layers of wild card and divisional playoffs leading up to the World Series, for example — but it’s still all about nine players on a field and a guy with a ball throwing to a guy with a bat.  For spectators, though, the use of a robot ump would really change the experience.  How in the world do you effectively heckle a robot ump?

Take Me Out To The Ballgame

The Tribe is playing the Red Sox in a day game today, so Russell and I decided to head down to Boston and catch a game at Fenway — the iconic ballpark where all of the greats have played. It’s pretty cool to be here, and if you’re a baseball fan who knows the history of the game, it doesn’t get any better than a game at Fenway or Wrigley Field.

Go Tribe!

In The Cheap Seats

We’re in Section 553 for today’s Tribe game. That’s in the top half of the upper deck. The game is a sellout and these were the best seats I could get.

Although we’re far above the field, I like the bird’s eye view. We won’t be able to call balls and strikes or heckle the opposing players from up here, but it’s also fun to watch the defensive adjustments and see what’s happening in the bullpens, too. Plus, you get a good view of downtown Cleveland.

Messing With The Summer Game

Spring training is underway, so it’s time for the hand-wringers in the executive suites of Major League Baseball to float their latest harebrained ideas to add “excitement” to America’s Pastime.  Every year, it seems, the baseball kingpins make little changes to speed the game up — like this year’s change limiting the number of visits to the mound — and also consider other, much more disruptive, potential changes to jazz things up.

The latest colossally bad idea that MLB executives apparently are discussing is intended to make the ninth inning more exciting, by allowing the team that is losing at that point to decide which of its batters get sent to the plate that inning.  The argument for this change is that baseball is the only sport where, with the game on the line, the best players might not be on the field.  If you’re three runs behind and your 7-8-9 hitters are coming to the plate, the proponents of the rule change argue, you might as well write the game off.  Why not let the trailing team choose to have their 3-4-5 hitters come up, so they’ve got a chance of winning?

It’s a stupid idea, because it changes the game even more fundamentally than the designated hitter rule.  Why should the team that is behind get “helped” by being given an advantage?  What if a perfect game is being pitched?  What about the idea that baseball is a team game, where every player needs to contribute and strategy and managerial moves can make a difference?  For that matter, why should the ninth inning be viewed as more important than every other inning?  Why shouldn’t every inning count equally?

If MLB execs are looking for other stupid ways add more twists and turns to the game, how about these?  Allow each team to strike one player out of the opposing team’s lineup.  Only have the best five players on each team bat.  Make any runs scored with two outs in an inning count double.  Or let a midget bat, or give a free suit to any player who hits a home run that hits a bull sign in the outfield.  (Wait a minute — I think those last two have already been tried.)

Why can’t baseball just accept the game the way it has been played for more than a century — the same game that our Moms and Dads, and Grandmothers and Grandfathers, watched and enjoyed?

Dealing With This Year’s Disappointment

This morning, Cleveland Indians fans are dealing with that familiar gut-punch feeling of deep disappointment.  Last night the Tribe got bounced from the playoffs by the New York Yankees, and the magical 2017 season, which saw the Indians set an American League record of 22 straight wins and win more than 100 games for only the third time in the team’s history, is abruptly over.

cleveland-indians-world-series-game-7-lossThe loss means that, when next year rolls around and the Tribe tries again, it will be a full 70 years — 70 years! — since Cleveland last won a World Series.  It’s now the longest such streak in Major League Baseball.

The fact that the Tribe lost to the Yankees, the perennial winners who have taken home more than a dozen World Series titles since the Cleveland last hoisted a World Series championship banner, makes the loss doubly painful.  The fact that the Indians lost after leading the series 2-0, notching an improbable comeback win in game two, and putting the Yankees on the brink of elimination, before collapsing in an uncharacteristic haze of errors and offensive futility — well, that just shoves the pain into the brutal, off-the-charts category that long-time Cleveland fans know all too well.

Watching the game wind down to its ugly conclusion last night, I saw the pictures of overtly prayerful Tribe fans hoping against hope that this year the result might be different — and I knew exactly how they felt.  But when it comes to the Cleveland Indians, the fates simply are not kind, and no amount of heartfelt beseeching of the baseball gods is going to change that.

So last night after the game ended we tossed and turned and slept poorly, fretting about this latest disappointment.  It’s kind of embarrassing to react so strongly to a sporting event, when our rational sides know that it is after all just a game that pales in comparison to the really important things in life — but that’s what sports fans do. We give our hearts to a team, willing to endure the angst of losses and thinking that when our team does win we’ll recoup that investment a hundredfold.  We just can’t help feeling deeply affected by these kinds of painful losses — and with the star-crossed Indians, the celebration of ultimate triumph still hasn’t come and seems as unlikely as ever.

Time will give us some perspective, and Tribe fans will always have that wonderful winning streak to remember, just like Rick and Ilsa will always have Paris.  But for now we’ve just watched another potential championship climb into a plane with the New York Yankees and fly away.  Boy, it really stings!

 

100 Wins

Yesterday afternoon the Cleveland Indians won their 100th game of the year, beating the Minnesota Twins 5-2.  The Tribe got another terrific starting pitching performance, this time from Carlos Carrasco, who pitched 8 shutout innings, struck out 14 batters, and now stands at 18-6 on the year.

usatsi_10313296_1506620201223_11256969_ver1-0100 wins is a nice round number.  It’s also an historic achievement of sorts.  This is only the third time in their 100-plus year history that the Indians have won 100 games in a season, and it took an historic winning streak to do it.  And in baseball generally, 100-win seasons don’t necessarily happen every year.  Eight teams in the big leagues have never won 100 games, and  these days the economics of  the game tend to discourage team owners and general managers from assembling the combination of talent that can win 100 games, because it’s going to be expensive and there’s a good chance that lots of the players will be moving on, leaving you to rebuild from scratch.  Better to aim for those teams that can consistently win 90 games and that you can hold together over a few years.

In our modern world, we tend to measure every athletic team by whether they won it all, and regular seasons are eclipsed by the playoffs, where short series and bad breaks can bring down dominant teams.  Many 100-win teams haven’t won the World Series, and this year — because both the Dodgers and the Indians have reached that number — there will be at least one more 100-win team that doesn’t win it all.  That’s just the way the ball bounces in baseball.

But, for the true fan, what happens in the post-season shouldn’t detract from what happens during the regular season.  Baseball is a marathon, and winning 100 games takes focus, careful management, and meaningful contributions from everybody on the roster.  It’s a true team accomplishment, because during those 100 wins different players are going to have to step up and make the big hit, or the tremendous fielding play, or the crucial pitch to allow another W to go into the record books.

2017 has been a remarkable year for the Cleveland Indians, and a marvelous year for those of us who are long-time fans of the Tribe.  Here’s hoping it continues!

Ready For Some Baseball

The Midwest has been hit with a typical contrarian March cold blast, and the east coast has been hammered by a snowstorm.  Perversely, the crummy, winter-is-still-with-us weather has made me think that the real spring cannot be far away, and that it’s okay to start thinking about something good that will be coming with the warmer spring weather in just a few days:  baseball.

hi-res-f1085a23cef5182ba9e8ebe79f8a2f31_crop_northAlthough they fell just short of that elusive World Series win, last year was a magical one for the Cleveland Indians.  The team overcame injuries to crucial members of the pitching staff and key position players and, with deft manager Terry Francona holding things together with spit, scotch tape, and baling wire, the Tribe improbably made it to the doorstep of a championship.  With the players hopefully healed, and Edwin Encarnacion set to fill a big hole in the middle of the lineup, Tribe fans are dreaming that this might be the year.  Hey, lightning finally struck the long-suffering Chicago Cubs last year — why can’t it strike the Indians this year?

Spring is the time of dreaming for all baseball fans.  Tribe fans aren’t the only ones who are hoping that the team’s off-season moves have put the right pieces in place, that the player who had the unexpected great year last year wasn’t a fluke, and that the minor league phenom will step up and produce in the big leagues.  It’s all part of the time-honored baseball process that has been part of America’s National Pastime for more than 100 years.  The baseball fans who are dreaming and hoping about their teams today are just new links in a very long chain.

Let’s play ball!

 

A Really Bad Idea

Sports Illustrated reports that major league baseball is considering a rule change that would apply only to extra-inning games.  Under the proposed rule, starting in the 10th inning, every team coming up to bat would begin their inning with a runner already on second base.

If the source were anything other than SI — which is presumptively authoritative on all things involving sports and women’s swimwear — I’d think this proposal was a prank, but apparently it’s legitimate.  This year, starting with the World Baseball Classic and then in two of the minor leagues, baseball is going to test the proposed rule.  Why?  Because it’s another way to “speed up the game” and avoid long extra-inning games where pitching staffs get blown out and a utility infielder ends up pitching the 19th inning.

posed_slideHow often does that happen, really?  Isn’t the rule change addressing a pretty rare situation — and in a way that radically alters the game?

Leave aside exactly how this would work.  (So, the next guy up doesn’t get to bat, and just trots out to second?  Too bad for your team if that’s your power hitter and he’s on a hot streak!  And how would this be accounted for in, say, calculating the ERA of the unlucky pitcher who didn’t give up a hit but now has to deal with a guy hugging second?)  In baseball, getting a player to second base — in what is called “scoring position” — is a huge part of the strategy of the game.  How do you move that guy who worked the pitcher for a walk or hit that sharp single to right field from first to second?  Do you have him try to steal, or bunt him over?  It’s a key part of the building tension that makes baseball so much fun to watch, and it gives fans endless opportunities to second-guess the manager.  But under this proposal, all of that strategery gets thrown out the window, and there’s just a guy at second for no apparent reason.  John McGraw must be turning over in his grave.

Can’t they just let baseball be baseball?  It’s not as fast-moving as the NFL or the NBA — okay, we get that.  But a big part of the joy of baseball is watching the same game that our grandfathers watched (let’s not talk about the designated hitter, okay?), played on the same fields, with the same distance between the pitcher’s mound and home plate and the same horsehide and the same kinds of wooden bats.  When you start to mess with the basics and not even require a team to do anything to get a guy to second base, you’re striking at the very core of the game.

This isn’t Nintendo, it’s baseball.  Let baseball be baseball, I say.

On To The LCS!

It was a struggle — particularly in the ninth inning, which seemed like it would never end — but the Cleveland Indians have moved on to the American League Championship Series.  The Tribe improbably swept the Boston Red Sox and now advance to play the Toronto Blue Jays.

Kudos to the Sox and David Ortiz for a great season and great career . . . but the Tribe is moving on.  Let’s see if our secret weapon, by the name of Terry Francona, can carry the Tribe on to the World Series.

Go Tribe!  Keep us from thinking about the presidential election a while longer!

There Are No Jinxes

There are no jinxes.

Repeat after me:  There are no jinxes!

When the Cleveland Cavaliers came roaring back from a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA championship this year, and finally brought a championship to Cleveland sports fans after a 52-year drought, they buried the Cleveland sports jinxes once and for all.  Even UJ has declared it.  So today I’ll write what I really think about the Cleveland Indians’ chances in the MLB playoffs, without tying myself in knots about whether by writing, speaking, or even thinking about the Tribe I’m somehow upsetting the lurking karma.  It’s wonderfully liberating, after years of being shackled by deep-seated jinxing fears.

img_2445The Tribe won the AL Central this year thanks to very good starting pitching, a superb bullpen, and a surprisingly robust offense.  For a while, the Indians easily had the best starting pitching in baseball, but then injuries took their toll and Josh Tomlin and Trevor Bauer had their struggles.  Now the team advances to the playoffs without Carlos Carrasco, with their most consistent starter, Corey Kluber, dealing with a nagging quadriceps strain, and with Danny Salazar available only in the bullpen.  The Tribe will need to start Bauer in game one against the Boston Red Sox and hope that Kluber recuperates in time to start game two.  Tomlin, who was removed from the starting rotation after getting repeatedly battered but who has pitched better since being reinstated as a starter after the injury to Carrasco, will start game three.  If the Tribe hopes to prevail, it will need all three of those starters to pitch well.

Some experts think that the Indians’ first-round opponents, the Boston Red Sox, are the team most likely to win the World Series this year.  They believe the Sox are the most balanced team in the playoffs, with good pitching and a very potent offense.  And, the Sox have the sentimental favorite storyline going for them, with the chance to win another World Series ring for retiring slugger David Ortiz, who had a fantastic year in 2016.  The Sox also won the season series against the Indians this year.  Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that none of the pundits and baseball GMs seem to be picking the Tribe to win.

I think the key question in this series is whether the Tribe’s hitters bring their bats.  This year, the team at times has had to scratch and claw for runs, but they’ve also been good at getting timely hits.  In 2016 we’ve seen the emergence of Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, and Tyler Naquin, and Mike Napoli and Carlos Santana have supplied the power.  Lindor and Napoli were slumping at the end of the season.  Tribe fans hope that they are revived by a few days off before the series starts on Thursday.

The Red Sox offense is going to score some runs; I’m not expecting a bunch of 1-0 games.  The issue is whether the Indians can also put some runs on the scoreboard.  If they can, I like their chances for one reason:  Terry Francona.  I think he’s one of the very best managers in the game, and he has used his bullpen spectacularly this year — including the game that Russell, UJ and I saw live, where Carrasco was injured on his second pitch and Francona threw a different pitcher out there every inning to improbably shut out the Tigers and win, 1-0, in 10 innings.  It was a magical, never to be forgotten performance.

Any manager and bullpen that can do that against a good offensive club like Detroit is something special.  If the Cleveland batters bring their lumber, and if the Tribe’s starters can keep the Sox from getting runaway leads, Francona and the bullpen could turn 2016 into something special for the Tribe and their long-suffering fans.