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  The owners apparently have withdrawn their proposal for expanded playoffs and also are offering a universal designated hitter for 2020 and 2021, which means National League fans won’t be able to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.

Sign-Stealing Scandal

The baseball world has been rocked by the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal, and this week it was further rocked by the punishments handed down by the baseball commissioner.  For implementing a process to systematically steal signs and convey them to Astros batters, the general manager and the manager of the Astros were suspended for a year, the team was fined the maximum of $5 million, and the team lost first-round and second-round draft picks in 2020 and 2021.  The manager and the general manager were then fired by the team’s owner.

tlqy3-1578949177-155192-blog-houstonastrosThere’s a lot of anger about the scandal, and the punishments.  The Astros won a World Series title in 2017, after a post-season run in which Major League Baseball determined that the Astros were cheating by stealing signs.  The Astros get to keep that tainted title.  The owner of the team wasn’t disciplined beyond paying the fine.  And even though the baseball investigators determined that the whole scandal was “player-driven,” no players have so far been punished.  The awards the players won for their performance, the hits they got after being tipped off about the pitches to come, and the accolades and bonuses and salary increases they received all are so far undisturbed.  Among some people in the baseball world, there’s a feeling that the Astros and their players got off easy, with only a few fall guys punished for an institutionalized cheating process that had to have involved virtually everyone in the franchise.

From a fan’s perspective, it’s the breadth and scope of the cheating that really takes your breath away.  To the extent that anyone still clings to the notion that baseball is the pure sport depicted in Field of Dreams, the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal has crushed that notion, once and for all.  And because everybody in the Astros organization seemingly was in on it, the impact of the scandal goes beyond past scandals involving individual players who might have taken illegal substances, or thrown spitballs, or flouted the rules in other individual ways.  The sign-stealing scandal also makes you wonder about things like Pete Rose’s lifetime ban.  Long-time readers of this blog know that I despise Pete Rose, but is the fact that he bet on games really worse than what the Houston Astros did?

Nobody on the Astros apparently cared that the team was breaking the rules, cheating, and getting an unfair advantage — and that’s pretty disillusioning.  It makes the fan wonder just how widespread  the cheating mentality, and the cheating itself, really is.  How do we ever assure ourselves that the winners won, fair and square?

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?

On To Baseball, And (Eventually) Summer

Today the 2018 Major League Baseball season starts.  On Opening Day, fans of every team can approach the new season with optimism that this might just be the year for their team to win it all.

1cfa76df7b9fae74e7898045efb9d360Fans of the Cleveland Indians, like Russell and UJ and me, are hoping that, on this 70th anniversary of the Tribe’s last World Series title, this might be the year that the team ends a very long drought.  With the winless streak now celebrating its 70th birthday, we think it’s time for its mandatory retirement.  And after last season, where Cleveland won more than 100 games but lost to the Damn Yankees in the playoffs, Tribe fans are hoping that the team has the pieces in place to make another legitimate run for the championship banner.

But Tribe fans are not alone, of course.  The start of baseball season is great, because every baseball fan everywhere feels inward optimism about their squad, even if they won’t admit it publicly.  Lightning can and does strike.  Sometimes teams just gel, and unlikely heroes emerge, and rookie phenoms actually pan out.  Every year, it seems, there is a Cinderella story, and at the start of the season every fan hopes that their team will end up donning the glass slipper.  The sense of hopefulness and possibility is intoxicating — but also can be brief and ruined by reality.

This year, though, at least for those of us in the Midwest and East who’ve been enduring the Winter that Won’t Go Away,  there’s another reason to celebrate the arrival of baseball’s Opening Day.  If the Summer Game is finally here, we can hope that summer itself isn’t far behind.

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!

Sweet 16

The last few weeks have been glorious times for the Cleveland Indians and their fans.  With last night’s victory over Baltimore, the Tribe has now won 16 games in a row.

img_5177With every triumph, the streak seems to set a new record.  It’s the longest winning streak in the history of the Indians ball club, and the longest streak in the major league since 2002.  It’s only the third time since 1961 that a major league baseball team has won at least 16 games in a row.  It’s nice to know, too, that Russell, UJ and I got to see part of the history.  We witnessed two of the wins on the streak, when the Tribe shut out the Royals back to back for wins 3 and 4 two weeks ago.

The Tribe still has a ways to go, however, if it really wants to put its name in the record books:  the all-time longest winning streak for a big league baseball team is 21 games, achieved by the 1935 Chicago Cubs.  (The longest losing streak, in case you’re interested, is 23 games by the 1961 Philadelphia Phillies.)

The games we saw against Kansas City were a microcosm of the streak, because the Tribe has been doing it with the basics:  excellent starting pitching, solid bullpen work, good defense, and timely hitting, often with power.  The streak has been particularly impressive because the team has won many of the games on the road while overcoming lots of injuries to key players, like Andrew Miller and Jason Kipnis.  And the players themselves don’t seem to be fazed by the team’s success and are just going out and playing one game at a time.

Every streak ends, of course, but this one has been lots of fun to relish.

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.

Wheeling And Dealing

As Russell, Kish, UJ, and I enjoyed watching the Indians take two games from the Oakland Athletics on Saturday and Sunday — and look pretty darned good in the process — the Tribe’s front office was busy, too.  With the major league trade deadline nearing, management was hoping to make some deals to fill a few holes on the roster.

IMG_2477The Indians pulled off a key trade with the Yankees, sending some of their stable of minor league prospects to New York in exchange for prized reliever Andrew Miller.  Miller, a lefty, is a strikeout specialist who will give Tribe manager Terry Francona better options in the bullpen.  (And, of particular importance in the modern world of baseball economics, Miller has a favorable contract, too.)  The Tribe also tried to acquire catcher Jonathan Lucroy from Milwaukee, in exchange for still more prospects, but Lucroy vetoed the deal, invoking no-trade rights he’s got in his contract.

As we drove back from yesterday’s 8-0 shellacking of the As, UJ and I listened to Cleveland sports talk radio.  Some callers bemoaned the Indians’ decision to deal some of their top prospects, but others recognized reality:  in professional baseball, if the stars align and you find yourself in a position to make a legitimate run for a pennant, you’ve got to make the moves that maximize your chances for success, now.  You can’t make long-term plans because injuries and contracts and free agency just make that impossible.  Instead, it’s all about striking while the iron is hot and hoping that you put the pieces together that allow you to bring home a championship.  (And, while nobody wants to give away prospects, experienced fans know that guys who look like lock-cinch phenoms at the A and AA levels often don’t pan out, anyway.)

This year the Indians have fine starting pitching, their defense is greatly improved, and their offense is far more productive than most people expected.  And while they’ve got some holes, at catcher and third base, they’ve got a legitimate shot at the playoffs — and one you make the playoffs, who knows?  I’m glad to see that the Tribe’s front office is wheeling and dealing to try to maximize the Indian’s chances to make a successful run this year.  The final trade deadline comes today, at 4 p.m.  Don’t be surprised if the Indians make another swap before then.

Sigh

A fine season for the Tribe has come to a disappointing ending with a shutout loss in the winner-take-all wildcard game.  I worked out some angst by screaming at the TV at some of the strike calls by the home plate umpire and some of the missed opportunities.  At least I succeeded in scaring the dogs.

I’m sorry this season is over, but I’ll try not to forget what a pleasant surprise this team was.  It’s hard to get past this loss right now, though.

Fun With Dog Butt

IMG_1477The baseball playoffs start tonight, with the Reds taking on the Pirates.  Dog Butt hoped to catch some of the game at Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark, but didn’t realize that the Reds’ late-season collapse means that the game will be played in Pittsburgh instead.

A Fan Of Francona

On Wednesday, the Cleveland Indians play in the wild card playoff game. Before that happens, I want to throw a few kudos at Tribe manager Terry Francona.

I’ve been tremendously impressed by Francona this year, and not just because he managed the team to the post-season.  When you hear him interviewed he gives thoughtful answers, rather than the mindless twaddle that tends to come from the mouths of every other coach in professional sports.  He’s amazingly humble and quick to give credit to others, both players and team management.  He never seems to rip his players, or get too excited or too depressed about the team’s last game or series.  He’s got just about the perfect temperament for a high-profile job that requires a unique basket of skills.

I can’t speak to Francona’s managing abilities from a technical standpoint.  I don’t know whether he pinch-hits at the optimum times, or calls for the hit-and-run when it’s warranted, or positions his fielders properly — although the Indians’ unexpected success this season suggests to me that Francona has a pretty good head for inside baseball.  What impresses me more is his interpersonal skills.  He seems to be an uncommonly shrewd judge of people, and particularly how to motivate them and raise their spirits.  He has taken a bunch of players that no one else wanted and welded them into a unit that improbably won 92 games, including its last 10 games of the year.  He stuck with players like Jason Giambi when fans were calling for their heads — and they ultimately delivered.  He and his coaching staff have made a pitching staff of cast-offs and retreads into an extremely strong unit that really carried the team to the playoffs.

Too often in professional sports, coaches and managers are judged on their last game, and if their team loses the season is viewed as a failure.  That’s not fair, and I hope that doesn’t happen to Francona.  He has done a fantastic job in the manager’s seat this year, and I hope every Tribe fans recognizes that — no matter what happens in the playoffs — Cleveland is lucky to have him.

In The Grip Of Shutdown Sameness

It’s been about six months since our last government crisis, so I guess we’re due.

This latest crisis arises — surprise! — from the inability of the Republicans and the Democrats, of the House of Representatives on one hand and the Senate and the President on the other, to agree on a short-term funding bill to keep the government operating.  If the parties do not come up with a way forward by midnight tonight, there will be a partial governmental shutdown.

Of course, the inability to agree on a continuing resolution is only the immediate cause of this latest “crisis.”  The issues cut much deeper.  From spending, to taxes, to the Affordable Care Act, to a host of other issues, our two political parties have fundamental differences of opinion about what government should do and its role in our everyday lives.

I’m not going to write today, however, about those policy differences.  It’s all been written before, by countless people, and there really isn’t anything fresh or compelling to be said.  I would simply point out to our political leaders that, when you constantly lurch from one “crisis” to another, the state of “crisis” eventually becomes the norm.  We’ve gone through the brinksmanship and the dire warnings again and again, and we’re still here.  Sequestration took effect . . . and the sun rose the next day.  After a while, the constant cries of wolf fall on deaf ears.

If this latest “crisis” provokes a partial government shutdown, how many Americans will even care?  They’ll find refuge in the final episodes of Breaking Bad, or the baseball playoffs, or something else of more immediate interest and impact on their lives.  Sadly, our political leaders may actually have let the country drift to the point where most people don’t even give a crap that our government is totally dysfunctional.