November 2011

Start Me Up

Bottle or draft?

Fries or onion rings?

Starting or Relieving?

You really can’t go wrong with any of the first four choices.   They all taste good and your selection probably depends on what mood you are in.   Because, really, how can you go wrong choosing anything associated with beer (except for a certain hotel inManhattan) or anything fried?

It is that last choice which can be particularly hard and if chosen incorrectly can lead to severe consequences for both player and franchise.    Exhibit A would be Joba Chamberlain.

First, let me start off by saying if the choice were mine, I would always take the side of making a pitcher start.   The guy pitching 200 innings is more valuable than the guy pitching 75 or 80 innings.  Some of you are probably screaming about how Mariano Rivera has probably been the most valuable Yankee over the last 15 years.  That is probably true and I would not argue against that point.  However, people, he is the exception and not the rule.   Rivera’s value and greatness is usually measured more by the playoffs than the regular season.  To get to the playoffs, you need quality starting pitching.  The Rays succeeded in 2011 because James Shields threw 11 complete games and the starting staff’s ERA was 3.53, easily leading the American League.  For all the hype of “Moneyball” and on-base percentage, the reason why the A’s were successful was because Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder were making  a combined 90 starts per season.  Don’t get me wrong, you need good bullpens particularly if you want to go deep in the playoffs.   This year’s Rangers were a perfect example of that.  However, many relievers run hot and cold, great one year, mediocre the next, average the following season.  Starting pitchers tend to be more consistent.  In 2012 CC Sabathia will probably win at least 18 games again.  Can you picture  David Robertson posting another 1.08 ERA in 2012?

Back to Joba.  He was brought up in 2007 and immediately there was something called “the Joba rules” where he couldn’t pitch more than an inning at a time, couldn’t pitch back to back days, couldn’t watch “Family Guy” on Tuesdays and Thursdays, you name it.  The idea was the Yankees were grooming him to be a starter which eventually he became at the end of the 2008 season and into most of 2009.  However, there was always this cloud hanging over him about starting or relieving and about the number of pitches thrown and skipped starts that eventually led to a couple of seasons where he wasn’t the Joba Chamberlain of 2007.  He was hurt most of 2011 but when he came back as a reliever he was starting to be dominant once again.  Will 2012 see an overpowering Joba Chamberlain or will we see the mess that was 2010?

I was glad to see Chamberlain get the chance to start and would have rather have kept him there and work through his issues.  Anyone that throws that hard and has three or four good pitches needs to be a starter.   I think he became ineffective and then hurt not because of starting but because the Yankee organization bounced both his body and his mind around like a basketball debating his future as a pitcher.   

Recently, the Rangers signed Joe Nathan to be their closer and move Neftali Feliz to the rotation.  Feliz almost became a member of the rotation last Spring but it was decided he was needed more in the bullpen because there were no other closer options.  Feliz can hit almost 100 MPH and has a command of four pitches.   A guy like that needs to be pitching 225 innings per year.   You might say Feliz is better off impacting 65-70 games instead of 35.  However, as we have seen time and again, closers can fall off without warning.  All you need to do is look at Eric Gagne and Jonathon Broxton.  They were indeed outstanding but their greatness was very short.  As a starter, the odds are Feliz will have a better chance of helping his team for 15 consistent seasons than 5 dominant ones.

Fair and Balanced?

“I’m a believer I couldn’t leave her if I tried”.-The Monkees

 There was a period of time where I thought baseball was really doing a dis-service to the fans that rooted for “small market” teams such asMilwaukee,KansasCity and Minnesota.  I felt the absence of a salary cap hurt these clubs because they couldn’t afford the best free agents or would be unable to keep their best players from going to “big market” teams such as the Yankees and Dodgers.  As it stood, revenue sharing among Major League Baseball clubs was not working, at least that’s what I thought.  But like the lyrics by the Monkees listed above, I could not leave baseball no matter how much I was disappointed in its supposed unfair system.  But I also came to a realization about the “big market” vs. “small market” debate.

 It is about the people, stupid.

 From a smaller market perspective, the right GM, the right scouting department and a viable organizational philosophy can combat the forces of big market “evil” (sorry Larry Lucchino that includes you now, not just the Yankees).  Just look at the four year record of the Tampa Bay Rays, they of the $35 million dollar payroll and playoff appearance in 2011 (after losing what seemed to be half of their roster).  They have been more successful than 75% of teams (including Lucchino’s Red Sox) in baseball because of the front office led by General Manager Andrew Freidman.  In that four year span, they have been to the playoffs three times with one World Series appearance.  But the good news is not limited to Tampa.  After years of darkness, the good folks in Pittsburgh and Kansas City are about to see a great light thanks to their organizational development.  Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates may well become the best Center Fielder in the game and the Royals’ Eric Hosmer may be on his way to being one of the best hitters in the American League.  The key for these two teams (and others like them) is signing their young core players to long term deals taking away a couple of their first free agency years.  Milwaukee accomplished this with Ryan Braun and Tampa did the same with Evan Longoria.  The Cleveland Indians started this trend years ago when they signed young, core players and held onto them long enough for the club to make two World Series appearances.

 When the inevitable free agent losses start, it is important the system is replenished properly.  Besides Tampa, the Twins have done a great job of filling in holes left by either free agency or injury.  In 2009, the Twins won the AL Central winning 87 games.  Before the 2010 season they lost closer Joe Nathan for the year.  Justin Morneau who hit 30 home runs the previous season did not play a game after July 7th.  And Orlando Cabrera, who played a pivotal role down the stretch, left via free agency.  So what happened?  The Twins won 94 games and their 6th division title in 9 seasons, a remarkable stretch for any team, let alone one whose previous owner had volunteered to eliminate the franchise.  The decisions made by the former (now current) GM Terry Ryan and the hand of Manager Ron Gardenhire have helped make the Twins one of the most respected organizations in baseball.

 I know the system is not without holes; I still think some kind of cap would be wise.  Fans will still be disappointed when their favorite players leave for other teams.  Fans of the A’s and Brewers will always have to wonder about impending free agents in a way fans of the Phillies and Red Sox do not.  And yes it took an awfully long time for Pittsburgh and Kansas City to get their acts together. No system is perfect, not even the mighty NFL’s (I’ll save the unfair treatment of MLB as compared to the NFL and NBA for later).  However, if market size were everything how does one explain teams like the Diamondbacks and Marlins having won the World Series more recently than the Dodgers and (sorry) the Cubs?  Big market teams may spend like Tarzan but if the wrong person is making the decisions, the results will look like Jane.

A Fan is Born

1979. Not the Smashing Pumpkins song.

The year 1979 produced my first memories of the great game of baseball. My earliest recollection is of attending Yankees spring training one day in February 1979. I don’t remember too much about my day there except my parents probably wanted to drop me off at the nearby airport and put me on the first flight to Key West. I kept insisting for what seemed to be an hour the Yankees were playing the Dodgers. Since our trip was probably the third week of February, the only players there were pitchers and catchers and maybe a couple of position players. Nevertheless, I was 100% sure the Dodgers were there and I do remember that finally my parents gave in and said that the Dodgers would be playing the Yankees and the game would start at any minute. My guess is not too long after that is when we started getting autographs from various players which is why I did not bring it up again. Check out the roster cover and the autograph of Ron Guidry (along with a faint ketchup stain).

1979 was my first extensive collection of baseball cards. I remember getting a wrinkled up 1978 Topps Pete Rose Record breaker. I was hooked instantly and I would spend many Summer hours looking at the pictures on front and stats on the back of each card. With my mother’s financial assistance, I was able to acquire most of the 726 card set by October. The actual completion of the set didn’t come until a few years later when I was earning a killing as a paperboy and discovered Dragon’s Den located on the world famous Central Ave. in Yonkers. While it is a tossup as to which card finished off the set for me, I do know the last Yankees card collected was Gary Thomasson. Bucky Dent’s card was one of the first Yankee cards found and he played a pivotal role in another memory. During one of his at-bats, I started to name all of the words that rhymed with “Bucky”. Needless to say, it didn’t take me too long to find the one that began with the letter “F”.

The actual 1979 baseball season was outstanding. We all know about the “We Are Family” Pirates coming back from a 3-1 deficit against Baltimore to win the World Series. There is also the infamous Disco Demolition Night that took place in Chicago on July 12th which resulted in the White Sox forfeiting their game against the Tigers. Gloria Gaynor may have survived a breakup but her record did not survive Comiskey Park. And of course, there was the horrific tragedy of the plane crash of Thurman Munson which occurred on August 2nd. However, there were some notable, if sometimes overlooked events that took place during the 1979 season.

On the same day of the Munson tragedy, a 34 year old man was named manager of the White Sox. The hiring was overshadowed by the horrible event of the plane crash but this manager carved out a pretty nice career for himself. All he did was win division titles in three cities along with six pennants and three World Championships. You may have heard of him. Some guy named Tony LaRussa, arguably the best manager of my generation.

Two Hall of Famers would record their 3,000th career hits in 1979. The first was base-stealing king (until Rickey Henderson) Lou Brock. He reached the milestone on August 13th. Following Brock was Carl Yastrzemski (the last Triple Crown Winner) who hit the magic number on September 12th. The 3,000 hit club is indeed rare as only 28 players have done it. To have two players reach that number a month apart in the same season is indeed a remarkable accomplishment.

More unusual feats occurred as there were not one but two co-winners of awards handed out for the 1979 season. The American League Rookie of the Year honors went to John Castino of the Twins and Alfredo Griffin of the Blue Jays. Over in the National League, the MVP award was split between Willie Stargell of the Pirates and Keith Hernandez of the Cardinals. These awards have existed in one form or another for over 75 years and there have been only two other occasions where awards were split (1976 National Rookie of the Year and 1969 American League Cy Young).

You can see why the 1979 season was special. The rest of the country might have been stuck in Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” but this fan was just discovering the joys of Major League Baseball.

Woe to the O’s

There are certain teams in baseball that I hope do well. Not necessarily root for them, but would like to see them win a division title, a 90 win season or just a run to get their fans excited. The Pittsburgh Pirates are an example. They have been around for 100 years and have a long, rich history. Baseball is better off when the Pirates are good. Same goes for the oldest team in the Majors, the Cincinnati Reds. I even had a soft spot in my heart for (gasp) the 2004 Red Sox. I had a great uncle who lived in Worcester, MA and was a life-long Sox fan. He died about three weeks after Boston had won the World Series. I was glad to see his team win it all before he passed on.

Which brings me to the Baltimore Orioles.

From 1966 through 1983, there was perhaps no more successful franchise in the sport than the Orioles. They appeared in three straight World Series, winning it in 1970; won two others in 1966 and 1983 and appeared in one other Fall Classic in 1979 losing to the aforementioned Pirates. Baltimore fielded such legendary names as Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer and Cal Ripken, Jr. along with a laundry list of All-Stars and award winners managed by Hall of Famer Earl Weaver during most their run of excellence. They even had their own style of play, a phrase coined by Cal Ripken, Sr. called “The Oriole Way” which emphasized an adherence to fundamentals at all levels of the organization with the belief that when the skills of older players diminished, younger players could seamlessly take their place. After a stretch of mediocrity with a dash of downright awful (21 game losing streak to start the 1988 season), the Birds returned to prominence in 1996 by winning the American League Wild Card and in 1997 by winning the American League East. Both times, the team lost in the American League Championship Series.

Since 1998, the Baltimore Orioles have not had a winning record. That statement is beyond shameful; it is sheer lunacy.

This is the franchise that gave the world Camden Yards, a simply breath-taking ballpark even almost 20 years after it opened which spawned the phase of new stadiums for everyone. I have been there twice; if you call yourself a baseball fan you must go before you are too senile to appreciate its beauty. They have a fan base that is second to none, steeped in tradition that simply deserves better. They have the resources to compete year in and year out. Baltimore is a nice city with such gleaming suburbs as Aberdeen and Havre de Grace (that is pronounced how?). It was also the setting for one of the best shows in TV history, “Homicide: Life on the Street”. Hopefully, the recent hiring of Dan Duquette can jump start a proud franchise and along with Buck Showalter can finally end the madness and turn the WO’s back to the O’s.

Nobody Beats the Quiz

Let us talk about one of the most overlooked players in baseball history. A man who for a 5 or 6 year stretch was arguably the best at his position. His three main contemporaries are all in the Hall of Fame while he has had no shot at enshrinement. I loved watching this guy even though it seemed like the Yankees couldn’t get a ball out of the infield against him. Let us talk about the man himself, Dan Quisenberry.

Signed as an amateur free agent in 1975, Quiz did not make his major league debut with the Kansas City Royals until July of 1979. Beginning in 1980, he began a six year stretch in which he led the American League in saves five times. He finished in the top five of the Cy Young award voting five times, twice finishing in second place. In 1983, he set a then Major League record with 45 saves while pitching to a ridiculous amount (for a reliever) of 139 innings and a 1.94 ERA. Today, closers may need almost TWO seasons to reach 139 innings. When subtracting the 1981 strike-shortened season (an impressive 18 saves and 1.73 ERA for Quiz that year) I would put his five year average from 1980-1985 of 74 games, 132.2 innings pitched, 2.52 ERA and 39 saves right up there with any five year stretch of the best closers in baseball history. So why is Quiz overlooked?

Perhaps one reason was that he spent his dominant years with the Royals. Goose Gossage spent six years with the Yankees, Bruce Sutter pitched for the Cubs and Cardinals and Rollie Fingers was the closer on three straight World Champion Oakland A’s teams (and was a Cy Young and MVP winner in 1981 with the Milwaukee Brewers). From 1979 through 1985 the Royals made the playoffs four times with two World Series appearances (a World Series title in 1985) so Quiz did get some national exposure. However, the small market of Kansas City does not command the same attention as New York, Chicago, St. Louis and a colorful cast of characters in Oakland.

While market size may have hindered Quiz’s profile after he retired (to be fair, at the time he was respected by players and fans alike) there are two other logical explanations as to why today’s fans may not recognize him. The first is that after 1985, his career took a swift turn downwards. After recording only 12 saves in 1986 and 8 saves in 1987, he was released by the Royals in July 1988 and signed by the Cardinals. After a season and a half in St. Louis, he ended his career after the 1990 season as a member of the San Francisco Giants. After 1986, Quiz only recorded a grand total of 16 saves to finish with a career total of 244. The other reason why he may be overlooked his that while he piled up a boatload of saves in six seasons, he was not a classic strikeout or power closer. When one thinks of a closer, Rivera’s cut fastball, Sutter’s split fingered fastball and Gossage’s pure heat come to mind immediately. Quiz probably did not throw harder than 82 MPH with that funky submarine delivery. But all he did was get people out. And in the end, isn’t that what matters?

I am not saying Dan Quisenberry should be put in the Hall of Fame. He did not have enough dominant years to deserve induction and he played only 12 seasons. However, because of the inflated saves numbers recorded by other relievers after he retired, younger fans may not fully appreciate how lights out Dan Quisenberry was in his prime. Also, from everything I have read about him, he was a wonderful person and a great character. His death in 1998 at the age of 45 from brain cancer was nothing short of tragic. Count me as a Quiz fan for life who never gets enough of visualizing the submarine delivery and 1-2-3 efficiency.

The Great Game

Baseball, baseball how do I love thee?  Shall I count the ways?  Do I need all 10 fingers?  Yes I would but I will keep it just a little shorter.

The majority of its season is played in the warmth of Spring and Summer.  There is nothing like sitting outside in the fresh air (or even stale air if your team plays in a dome) on a sunny afternoon or a clear night sky and watch a baseball game.  Major League or Single-A, it doesn’t matter.  I can’t think of a better way to relax and spend a couple of hours with family or close friends.  I will admit the tailgating experience in football is alluring but when the temperature is lower than your shoe size, the appeal gets lost among the ice caps forming on your eyebrows.

The regular season actually means something.   Playoff spots are few.  If you make the playoffs in Major League Baseball, it is not a fluke.  A team truly has to earn its way in.  There is the occasional 83 win squad that makes it but you will never, EVER see a team with a losing record make the Postseason.  People complain about the length of a baseball season but in reality it is only 8 games longer than it was back in the golden age of the 1950’s.  As baseball expanded, so did the need for extra playoffs to keep more cities involved in the hunt.  I would have preferred to keep the League Championship Series at best of 5 (so would have the 1985 Blue Jays who were up 3 games to 1 the first year the new format was implemented) but I have learned to live with it.

What event has done more for society than Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier and playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers?  That took place more than a decade BEFORE the denial ofRosaParks a bus seat, sparking the Civil Rights Movement.  It might be fair to say that Jackie Robinson helped the country accept Martin Luther King, Jr.  because of his bravery in becoming the first black man to play Major League Baseball and the beginning of acceptance for blacks to become integrated in society.  It is said sports has the ability to bring people of diverse nationalities and incomes together and root as one people for their favorite teams.  I dare say baseball was the first sport to reflect that statement.

No sport has the history of baseball.  The World Series dates back to 1903.  Japanese soldiers used to taunt American soldiers during World War II by mocking Babe Ruth.  The NFL is more popular now but the names of Ruth, Cobb and DiMaggio still resonate 60 and 70 years after they quit playing.  When you hear the numbers 56 or .400 you know exactly what they mean.   The same can’t be said of football, basketball and hockey.  Tired of baseball living in the past?  Try finding a more exciting ending to a season than the end of the 2011 baseball season (unless of course you are a Red Sox or Braves fan).  You couldn’t even begin to duplicate that anywhere else.    People will point to low World Series ratings as evidence of baseball’s declining interest  but I would argue baseball has never been more popular with long suffering teams (with rich histories) in Pittsburgh and Kansas City offering glimmers of hope and the number of minor league teams dotted all around the country. 

These are but a few of my reasons for my love affair with baseball.  I would love to read what you guys think.  Take care and be sure to come back here often for some more wisdom and entertainment.

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