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!

 

Nascar In The Age of Trump

If there’s one sport that I would associate with our new President, it’s Nascar.

Both Nascar drivers and Donald Trump like ballcaps with printed messages.  Both Nascar and the new President like to throw in the random commercial plug here and there.  Both Nascar drivers and Donald Trump need a lot of help from their pit crews.  And both Nascar and Trump appeal to older, rural white voters.  It’s no surprise that, last year, one of the Nascar execs endorsed Trump for President.

AP NASCAR TEXAS AUTO RACING S CAR USA TXSo it seems like a counterintuitive cultural disconnect that, with Donald Trump sitting in the Oval Office, Nascar is really struggling — but that’s the case.  Ratings for Nascar broadcasts have been cut almost in half since 2005.  Racetrack owners have torn down sections of bleachers at their tracks due to declining attendance, but the remaining stands still aren’t filled.  TV executives are pushing the sport to make dramatic changes to reverse the decline.  And, according to the linked article, even with two years’ notice Nascar wasn’t able to find a new primary sponsor that was willing to pay its asking price and it therefore had to sell the sponsorship and naming rights on the cheap.

Why is Nascar on the downslope?  The article gets into a lot of inside baseball talk, but I think the reality is simple:  it’s boring to watch cars driving around a race track for hundreds of miles, no matter how garishly painted they might be and how many product stickers they might sport.  I’ve never understood Nascar’s appeal for that central reason — and the generations coming behind mine, growing up with Walkmans and cell phones and social media, apparently have even less of an attention span than I do.  When Nascar people are talking about installing wifi at the racetracks, that tells you all you need to know about the future of the sport.  People just aren’t willing to sit in the stands for hours, drinking beer and hoping for some aggressive driving on the turns and an exciting crash now and then.  Changing the rules of the races and trying to come up with nicknames that make the drivers more interesting aren’t going to change that central reality.

It would be weird if the term of President Donald Trump saw Nascar once again relegated to the status of a small, regional sport — but that may be the direction in which we’re heading.

Politics, Even On The Links

Rory McIlroy, of Ireland, is one of the best golfers in the world.  Recently he decided to tee it up in a friendly foursome that included President Donald Trump.

Apparently, that’s now forbidden.

rory-mcilroy-and-donald-trumpMcIlroy faced withering criticism on the Twitterzone from people who thought that simply playing golf with the President could be viewed as some kind of endorsement of Trump and his policies.  Our culture has grown so heated that even an amiable Irish guy, who doesn’t vote in American elections, can’t go out for 18 holes of golf with the President without facing a backlash and having people accuse him of “whoring” himself and trying to shame him.

Playing golf used to be viewed as a kind of politics-free space.  Celebrities, comedians, movie stars, and sports figures could hit the links with Presidents, Governors, Senators, and Congressmen without being accused of endorsing their political views.  But it wasn’t just American politics that weren’t transported to the golf course, either.  Gary Player was a beloved player in America and elsewhere, even though he hailed from South Africa during its apartheid era.  And golfers freely played in international competitions without people trying to ban them because their home countries enforced repressive policies or weren’t viewed as sufficiently following the prevailing political views of the day.   The golf course was a kind of sanctuary where people could just play golf.

And this was true even at the local level, where people playing in club tournaments or outings might detest the views of the people they’re paired with — but they play with them anyway, and treat them cordially and in the spirit of friendly competition.  It’s one of the great things about golf.

It’s just too bad that the concepts of tolerance and sportsmanship and getting away from the hurly-burly of the world while you’re out on the course aren’t shared by more people who apparently must view everything through a political lens, and hold everyone to rigid standards of acceptable political behavior.  When somebody can’t go out and just play golf with the President without getting ripped as a turncoat, it’s a sad statement.

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.

Patriots And Parity

We’re only a few days away from the Super Bowl, and I haven’t heard anyone talking about the game.  I had lunch a few days ago with four male friends, and literally not one word was spoken about Super Bowl LI.  Donald Trump and his antics were discussed ad nauseum, but football didn’t come up once.

NFL: Miami Dolphins at New England PatriotsIt’s not just because of Trump, of course.  It’s also because nobody is particularly excited about this Super Bowl match-up.  This has to be the least buzzworthy Super Bowl since — well, maybe ever.  Who cares about the Atlanta Falcons, and how many times can a person watch the New England Patriots, anyway?

But let’s pause for a moment to at least give a nod to the Patriots, their grumpy and rumpled head coach Bill Belichick, and their quarterback, Tom Brady.  Since Belichick has become the Patriots’ top dog in 2000, they’ve made the NFL playoffs in all but three years.  They haven’t missed the playoffs since the 2008 season.  And, even more impressive, the Patriots, Belichick, and Brady have made it to six Super Bowls during that run, winning four of them.  That’s why it seems like the Patriots are in every Super Bowl as a matter of federal law.

What’s remarkable about all of this is that the NFL is specifically designed to crush any possibility of the kind of dynasty the Patriots have become.  The NFL seeks parity above all else.  Regular-season schedules are set up so the strong play the strong and the weak play the weak, with the league hoping that everybody ends up with an 8-8 record and fans who are hoping for a playoff spot up until the very last game of the season.  And, of course, after every year players who have done well who have become free agents can go to other teams, and assistant coaches can be hired to be head coaches elsewhere, and the playing and coaching talent gets redistributed.

The Patriots, however, refuse to participate in the NFL’s regime of enforced mediocrity.  They lose players and coaches, but under Belichick and Brady they always fill the holes and just keep rolling along.  In a world where everything conspires against them — thereby feeding Belichick’s innate sense of paranoia — the Patriots somehow rise above and just keep winning.  Their run is as remarkable, in a positive way, as the Browns’ record of consistent and crushing futility is on the negative side.

So we’ve got to tip our cap to the New Englanders.  Of course, that doesn’t mean we have to actually watch them, again, in this Super Bowl.

30 Years After “The Drive”

Thirty years ago, yesterday, UJ and I and two of our friends were sitting in our seats in Cleveland Municipal Stadium, watching the AFC championship game and hoping that the Browns would finally make it to the Super Bowl.

It was the first year after Kish and I had moved back to Ohio from Washington, D.C., and UJ and I decided to spring for season tickets to the Browns.  To our delight, the team — led by Bernie Kosar, Ozzie Newsome, two great running backs, some very good receivers, a defense that would bend but not break, and an indomitable coach, Marty Schottenheimer — turned out to be really good.  We saw some great wins during the regular season, and the Browns had won an improbable, come from behind, overtime thriller playoff game against the Jets the week before.  Now, on a cold day on the Cleveland lakefront, the Browns were playing the Denver Broncos for the AFC slot in the Super Bowl.

plain-dealer-front-page-the-drive-41646014a33b632eOf course, just as the Browns seemed to be on the cusp of victory that day, “The Drive” happened, and the hopes of the team and Browns fans the world over were crushed.  It’s a story that has almost become the stuff of legend — which is why you can find Cleveland newspapers and, of course, the Denver Broncos website remembering it, 30 years later — and it is always mentioned, bitterly, when people talk about the horrors of Cleveland sports fans over the past half century.

I didn’t realize that yesterday was the 30th anniversary of “The Drive” until one of the guys I went to the game with mentioned it.  I groaned when he did, because I had no interest in ever thinking about that game again, and I expected to experience that familiar hot blast of pain and frustration that always bubbles up whenever I remember that game — but to my surprise my reaction yesterday really wasn’t all that bad.  It’s almost as if the Cavs’ NBA championship win last year, and the passage of three decades, have taken the pitchforks out of the demons’ hands that are lurking in my Cleveland sports fan subconscious and replaced them with something softer that can produce a twinge of regret, but not the torment and angst that once seemed to be everlasting.

They say that time heals all wounds.  Maybe it’s true, even for sports fans.

The Streak Ends

Last night the Capitals beat the Columbus Blue Jackets, 5-0, in Washington, D.C.  Last year, that sad result wouldn’t have been a surprise — after all, the CBJ lost 40 games last season and finished at the bottom of the NHL’s Metropolitan Division.

jacketsYesterday’s game was different, though, because it brought to an end an amazing 16-game winning streak for the Columbus hockey club.  It was the first time the Blue Jackets had lost a game since before Thanksgiving.  During the streak the CBJ rose from near the bottom of their division to first place — which is another landmark for the franchise.  As of today, the CBJ have 58 points after only 37 games; last year the team had a measly 76 points for the entire 82-game season.

For Columbus generally, and Blue Jackets fans specifically, the 16-game streak, and the undefeated December, was pretty cool.  It is the second longest winning streak in NHL history, falling one game short of the all-time record, and it saw the Blue Jackets win against good teams and bad, win on the road and at home, and even beat a team that was on its own 12-game winning streak.  Sellout crowds started to pack Nationwide Arena, and the people of Columbus started talking about the Blue Jackets around town — a lot.  For a franchise that has consistently known failure and disappointment, and that has never won a playoff series, it was heady times.  And the Columbus community appreciated it, because it allowed people to think about something other than Ohio State football for a while.

So now the streak is over, and it will be up to the Blue Jackets to bounce back, reveal their inner grit and determination, and show that they belong among the best teams in the NHL by playing consistently good hockey for the rest of the season and well into the playoffs.  Their coach, tough-talking John Tortorella, has challenged them to do exactly that in the wake of the loss to Washington.  After all, that’s what good teams do.

The Columbus Blue Jackets — a good team.  Who’da thunk it?  It’s a great thing.