Monday, October 29, 2012

Your 2012 World Series Champs

The Tigers were supposed to be unstoppable.
They were well-rested, having dispatched the mighty Yankees in humiliating fashion. The Bronx Bombers left Detroit a circus, dismantled on the field by the Tigers' pitching and power, and off the field by their clubhouse issues, A-Rod's pickup lines and the ever-opportunistic New York media. That left the Tigers plenty of time to sit back, rest their pitchers, and set up the T-1000 disguised as Justin Verlander to inflict maximum damage on whoever staggered out of the NLCS.
The Giants were supposed to be doomed. Their 2-time Cy Young winner was relegated to the bullpen, a Loki lookalike who'd spent the year figuratively being thrashed by the Hulk. They'd dug themselves a 3-1 hole against the seemingly unkillable Cardinals, with their late-season sparkplug among the walking wounded, starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner was no longer on speaking terms with the strike zone, and they faced the terrifying specter of starting Barry Zito in a playoff game.
Of course Kung Fu Panda was going to hit three bombs and chase Verlander in the opener. Of course the Tigers, with Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera squatting athwart the middle of their lineup, were going to get shut out in games 2 and 3. Of course the Giants' bullpen, comprised seemingly entirely of Kansas City Royals castoffs, would be untouchable. And of course the Series would end with Cabrera whiffing on a pitch from replacement closer Sergio Romo, whose job description out of the pen was largely "replacement beard".
So much for conventional wisdom. So much for inevitable.
Thank you, baseball. I'll see you in the spring.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Mariano Rivera is old, and wolves are after him.


One of the greatest canards in sportswriting is the ongoing concern for a player's "legacy", whereby the columnist suggests that an aging athlete retire in order to protect those misty-colored memories of the athlete at their best, instead of tainting them with images of a descent into mortality. The sad spectacle of Willie Mays stumbling around the outfield for the Mets is inevitably brought up, and for extra credit you get call-outs to Johnny Unitas in Chargers powder blue. And then comes the handwringing, and the inevitable conclusion that the player, whether it be Mike Schmidt or Mariano Rivera, ought to hang it up in order to preserve the narrative of their greatness.
From where I sit, that's an incredible act of chutzpah. To tell an elite athlete, one of the best in the world at what they do, that they should hang it up to preserve a nebulous "legacy" that's really nothing more than an ill-defined narrative, that they should walk away from the millions of dollars that they could potentially earn for a myth, that they should step away from the thing they have trained their whole lives to do and theoretically love doing just so no one in the press box haz a sad.
It is, of course ridiculous, as ridiculous as me walking up to you and saying that hey, you should quit your job because I don't want to spoil the memories of how good you were at unjamming copiers in 2008. It's their decision as to when to hang it up, theirs and the teams that might employ them, and no one else's. They get to be the ones to weigh how much they think their bodies can endure, how well they can perform, how much they still want to compete, how many weeks and months they want to spend away from their families, and what else they might do if they do retire. Me and thee, all we've got is a rooting interest - no skin in the game at all. And while we might think it helps our favorite team if an aging superstar hangs it up - Wallace Matthews' recent piece at ESPN.com at least makes a nod in this direction - wrapping that sort of analysis in the fuzzy logic of "he should quit to protect his legacy" is nothing but sentimental arrogance.
Maybe, as per Matthews' piece, Rivera will retire. Maybe he won't. I'm wagering "concern for his legacy" - already locked down as the greatest situational pitcher of all time - will be at the bottom of things he considers as he makes his decision.
Because, at the end of the day, everybody's memory of Willie Mays is The Catch and his cap flying off, and not of a middle aged man lurching around Shea. Everybody's memory of Steve Carlton is of a slider that sprained batters' knees, not of a nondescript Twins swingman. Everybody's memory of Unitas is of The Greatest Game Ever Played, not a Chargers part-timer.
The legacy takes care of itself. The players know this. We should, too.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Charlotte: Real Sports Town

Something remarkable happened in North Carolina sports this fall. No, I'm not talking about Duke becoming bowl-eligible by beating UNC and Coach Hat. It's not the guarantee that the Hurricanes will get out of October without having once again dug themselves an insurmountable hole. And it's not the latest wacky rules change in NASCAR that makes no sense to anyone not part of the France family.
No, I'm talking about Charlotte suddenly deciding that it was a Big Time Sports City. The first signs came a few weeks ago, when the Charlotte media piled on Panthers star quarterback Cam Newton for his sideline behavior during a prime-time pounding by the Giants. This, of course, follows the long-standing tradition of big-time sports cities beating the crap out of their best players, from New York (A-Rod) to Philly (Mike Schmidt, Donovan McNabb) to Los Angeles (Matt Kemp). And yes, the Carolina sports media was inordinately proud of that fact. I heard sports-talk djs bragging on-air about how this made Charlotte "a real sports city".
As someone who was born in NY, grew up in Philly and went school in Boston, let me humbly suggest that this sort of idiotic behavior is the last sort of thing you want to emulate, and the last sort of thing that makes you "real" as sports fans. Newton's a convenient lightning rod, sure, but hey, he's a second year player at the most difficult position in the league, on a team that doesn't have a lot of weapons and no defense to speak of. He already expects he has to win every game by himself because his linebackers sure as hell aren't going to help him; getting mad because he doesn't always pull it off, because he's still learning, because he's the only recognizable name on a roster whose second-most famous player has a bad habit of putting his teammates on the disabled list, well, that's kind of counterproductive.
And so, as a resident of too many cities where the sports media eats its own,  I listen to the callers on "The Fan" and "The Buzz" talk about how it's time to give up on Newton, and how he's a bust, and how it's time to tear down a team that never got built in the first place, and I shake my head. That crap sort of works in Boston and Philly and NY because there's money there, and there's legacy, and there's a sort of "we've-been-married-so-long-that-we've-forgotten-how-to-say-nice-things-about-each-other-but-God-help-you-if-you-come-between-us" vibe. Charlotte doesn't have that. Charlotte's got one basketball team that packed up and left and another one that's literally the worst of all time, and a football team that can't figure out who it is or whether it belongs to Charlotte or both Carolinas. Picking up the worst habits of the old guys is not the best way to build fandom, or to make your town a desirable place to play.
Being a "real" sports town is overrated - ask anyone who endured the Bobby Valentine shenanigans this year. It's a lot more fun being a town that loves sports, even when there's a hiccup or two. And it's definitely a lot more fun living there.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

He Should Have Sent A Gift Basket, Cause That's Classy

There is a boring story, and there is an interesting story.
The boring story is this: hand and wrist injuries beat the holy hell out of your power. Alex Rodriguez is fresh off just that sort of injury, and as such, he is not hitting at all well precisely when the Yankees need him most. He is not alone in this on the Yankees' roster, but unlike, say, the case of Robinson Cano, the Yankees actually have a backup for A-Rod who can play a little, in the form of the spiderweb-fragile Eric Chavez. And so it makes sense, in an effort to jump-start a legendarily horrific post-season offense, for Joe Girardi to switch out a few parts and maybe see if he can get something rolling. And that's how A-Rod ends up on the bench.
The interesting story is this: A-Rod got pinch-hit for, and because he's such a prima donna and likes having himself painted as a centaur and he's not a team guy, he immediately turned around and passed a baseball to a coupla hot chicks in the stands trying to score some digits rather than do the officially sanctioned stand-on-top-steps-of-dugout-and-look-intense that you're supposed to do when you've been removed from the game. This violation of the unwritten rules of baseball (which sure do get written about a lot, don't they?) has called down the wrath of A-Rod's manager Joe Girardi and his GM Brian Cashman, who, despite ignoring or flat-out denying that Hot Chick Ball Gate (or whatever we're calling it) is the issue, clearly have decided that Hot Chick Ball Gate is the issue. Also, they're going to trade him to the Marlins, who love taking on older players and salary.
One is logical, one is not. One has been flat-out denied by the parties involved, one has not. One is salacious and fits into the ongoing "Whatever A-Rod does is wrong" narrative, one does not.
It doesn't take a genius to figure out which one people are going with. It's just a little sad that the choice wasn't a little harder.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Bad Day At Second Base

Yankees fans are justifiably upset about a blown call at second base yesterday that gave the Tigers two insurance runs. They have every right to be upset; it was a terrible call. The umpire was right there and had no excuse for not seeing it.
I can only hope that as that horrible call was made, Orioles outfielder Nate McLouth sprang up and screamed at his television set, "Yeah, let's see how YOU like it!"
Also, I'm fairly certain I heard at least two announcers say that if Jeter had been on the field, they would have gotten that call.


Sunday, October 14, 2012

Past a Disabled Jeter

"Thanks, guys. I've got gift baskets for both of you in the car."





Poor Detroit.

The narrative for this ALCS has been written. Never mind their ballsy recovery from last night's 9th inning implosion by their "closer", never mind the great work by Dotel and Smyly to shut the door once it had happened, never mind the way Delmon Young suddenly turned "clutch" in a way that's only reserved for Yankees this time of year - the story's been written.
If the Tigers win this series, it's because the Yankees don't have Derek Jeter. They won't win because of excellent starting pitching, or the 3-4 combo for the ages of Cabrera and Fielder, or because most of the Yankee lineup (with the exception of Raul Ibanez, who's streakier than a paint job applied by a meth addict) could be swinging canoe paddles up there and not hit anything. The Tigers cannot win this, the Yankees can only lose it.
And, of course, if the Yankees pull it out, they have Won It For The Captain. They have overcome his loss, and relied on his sage advice (Presumably, it starts with "ignore all ground balls to your left") and his intangibles and his leadery leadershipness and, well, the Tigers are just there to play the part of the Washington Generals.
Either way, it's about Jeter. And while I'm not a reflexive Jeter-hater the way some folks seem to be, I'm also not a reflexive Jeter-lover the way many are as well. (See also: Gift baskets).  And as sad as it is for one of the game's marquee players to be out for the remainder of the postseason, it shouldn't be the only story to come out of this series.
But it will be.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Cardinals 9, Nationals 7

Somewhere, in the smoldering, sulfurous pits of hell, there's an empty director's chair with the name of someone associated with the St. Louis Cardinals on it. Other than the Faustian bargain, there's no explanation for what happened last night in DC - or, for that matter, what happened against Atlanta, or what happened against the Rangers last year, or the Phillies, or...
In any case, that just happened. And let's be clear - Stephen Strasburg would not have saved the Nats last night. Gonzalez, not Strasburg, was the Nats' best pitcher this year, and when he got a case of the yips it opened the door for St. Louis to come back. And to their credit, the Cardinals took advantage. Their bullpen shut the Nats down with power arm after power arm, and in the ninth, well, you could see guys so desperate they were trying to hit three-run homers off Grizzly Adams-alike Jason Motte with no one on base.
In football, in basketball, in hockey - the Nats would have been able to just run out the clock. Not so here.
And thus, baseball.


Monday, October 08, 2012

Lock the Curse In the Other Room

Pitching Like Dinner at Hoy Hing Was On The Line


In 1993, they kept me in the other room.
It was the last game of the Phillies-Braves playoff series, and my friends Aaron and James had decided I was cursed. Every time I looked at the television, things went horribly wrong for the Phillies. So in the middle of the 6th, they - and James looks like the offspring of Reggie White and Ian Anderson - picked me up off the couch in James' basement apartment where we were watching the game (over takeout from Hoy Hing, the greatest greasy wok joint in Boston at the time, but I digress), slung me into James' bedroom, and shut the door. After each pitch they told me what had happened - "Roger Mason threw a fastball. Roger Mason threw a fastball. Roger Mason threw a fastball. Roger Mason threw a fastball" - but they wouldn't budge a bit when I pounded on the door and demanded to be let out.
Eventually, the game ended. The Phillies won. They let me out. And I wondered, just a little bit, if they were right - that I was some kind of a jinx.
You do that when you're young, overcaffeinated, overbeered, sleep deprived, and in grad school. You generally grow out of it when you hit the real world, encounter the laws of causation and probability first hand, and realize that there is absolutely nothing you do at home, watching on television, that affects what happens on the field.
Tonight, I turned on the Yankees-Orioles game while I was cleaning up the kitchen. It was a 2-2 tie when I turned on the televison. It was not a 2-2 tie ten seconds later.
Aaron, James, I think I owe you guys an apology. And maybe one for Roger Mason, too.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Reasons to Root For Each Team In the MLB Playoffs

Jim Leyland on Casual Fridays
The New York Yankees
Another chance to watch the ageless Derek Jeter and resurrected Andy Pettite on the big stage. And, err, that's about it. Screw the Yankees. They've won enough already.

The St. Louis Cardinals
Overcame a staggering number of injuries to reach the postseason. Made it in despite losing one of the best players in baseball history to free agency in the off-season, and filling the gaps with guys named Kozma and Craig and (the other) Carpenter. No brawls with the Cincinnati Reds all year. Rookie manager Mike Metheny had the stones to start Kyle Lohse - THE Kyle Lohse - in a win-or-go-home playoff scenario. And the chance that this might be the last go-round for Fat Elvis Berkman.
Plus, they're not the Yankees.

The Cincinnati Reds
They're the best team nobody's heard of. Their closer throws faster than Sammy Hagar is capable of driving. Bronson Arroyo rocks (literally). Joey Votto is a beast. Jay Bruce is a slightly smaller beast. Brandon Phillips is the second-funniest tweeter still playing (sorry you're home, @TheRealTPlush). Johnny Cueto had the best season by a pitcher you didn't hear about. All they do is win ballgames. They had the stones not to overload their playoff roster with starting pitchers they'll never use.
And of course, they're not the Yankees.

The Detroit Tigers
Miggy and Prince shouting "Si, motherfucker!" as they jack bombs in batting practice. The Koufaxian transcendence that is Justin Verlander - and the fact that he's damn funny in commercials, too. Closer Jose Valverde's untucked shirt and obvious love of pie. All other arguments aside, Miggy won the Triple Crown, and that's awesome. They finally divested themselves of Brandon Inge. Doug Fister, and the agony a simple typo caused Craig Calcaterra. Jim Leyland looks more like Solid Snake every year - or is it that Solid Snake looks more like Jim Leyland?
And they ain't the Yankees.

The Baltimore Orioles
A streak of 14 straight losing seasons snapped unexpectedly and astonishingly. An army of scrap-heap pickups like Nate McLouth and Joe Saunders rising to the occasion. Manny Machado, stealth third baseman, who in a year of no Trout would be the big rookie fish - he's that good. Adam Jones, putting it all together. A closer out of nowhere, with more saves than strikeouts. An astonishing job of shuffling personnel between Baltimore and AAA by former punchline GM Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter. The damn bird logo, which should beat the Cardinals bird up and take its beer money. And they're not the Yankees.

The Oakland A's
Because they have no goddamn business being there. Because Brandon McCarthy won Twitter when he got out of the hospital after taking a line drive off the face. Because wearing green and gold on national television when you're not a leprechaun takes balls. Because Yoenis Cespedes is in fact Batman. Because Chris Carter finally got a real shot. Because of the terrible, terrible thing that happened to Pat Neshek and his wife. Because of a rotation full of rookies and because there needs to be a giant "Screw you!" to all the troglodytes who routinely use Moneyball as a blunt weapon because reading it is too damn hard.
And as you might have guessed, they're not the Yankees.

The San Francisco Giants
Because every night, somebody's getting Poseyed. Because The Freak had a bad year, but he's still The Freak, and you can't not root for the guy. Because of the ongoing train wreck that is the Barry Zito contract. Because nobody's going to be talking about that goddamned beard. Because Matt Cain is a walking, talking statistical outlier, and because his perfect game was a masterpiece. Because the universe still owes Willie McCovey one.
And because they're so not the Yankees, they left New York half a century ago.

The Washington Nationals:
They've got a $126M caveman in right field. They're a year ahead of schedule. Their oh-so-brash underaged superstar spent the pennant-clinching celebration drinking apple juice with one of his teammate's kids. And most of all, if the Nationals don't win it all, we will never, ever hear the end of the armchair pitching coaches chewing on Nats GM Mike Rizzo for his decision to sit down Stephen Strasburg.
Also, they're not the Yankees.

Friday, October 05, 2012

The Arguments Against The Arguments Against: AL MVP

This is what it looks like when baseball bloggers throw down 
over Cabrera vs. Trout. Exactly like this.


At this point, the debate over who gets the American League MVP has gone past baseball and straight into religion, or perhaps politics. For good or for ill, the AL was blessed this year with two guys who had utterly transcendent, if wildly different, seasons. In any given year, either of the two - the remarkable all-around play of rookie Mike Trout or the once-in-two-generations offensive onslaught of Miguel Cabrera - would be enough to win MVP in a walk. This year, however, they're up against each other, and the partisans on each side have long since moved past debating their choice's merits and gone on to attacking the other guy's fans as A)knuckle-dragging Philistines who wouldn't know good baseball if it sat on their face and wiggled or B)spreadsheet-loving nerds who are afraid to attend actual ballgames without their allergy inhalers, and even then, only with written permission from their mothers.
It is, in a word, sad that in a year when we should be celebrating two feats of excellence, we are instead  beating each others brains in so as to best remove all the joy from what these two jokers actually did on the field. Contrast that, for example, with what's going on in the National League, where an army of good-but-not-transcendent candidates (Buster Posey, Andrew McCutcheon, Giancarlo Stanton, Chase Headley, Chipper Jones, Yadier Molina, and I believe the late Pat Paulsen) clutter the ballot and the debate is less than inflamed. The difference is night and day, where night is somewhere out beyond the Oort Cloud, and day is on Mercury.
That being said, it is the official position of Sportsthodoxy that it would not be a crime to award the American League MVP to either of the two gents currently in the running. Both of them have had historic seasons. Trout's combination of speed, defense and hitting has produced a nightly array of highlights, and his HR/SB/Runs numbers are, in conjunction, historic. Cabrera, of course, won the Triple Crown, and while it must be recognized that RBI are in large part a function of the guys hitting ahead of you, it's still one hell of a mythologically potent feat.
With that in mind, we're not going to make the case for either candidate. Instead, we're going to take a little time to demolish various arguments against them, largely because the people making those arguments are a bunch of Negative Nancies who are largely annoying about the whole thing, and because their failure to grasp the fundamentals of logic whilst still clinging to the slipperiest of ad hominems infuriates the editorial staff to no end.

So here we go:

ARGUMENTS AGAINST MIKE TROUT

  • WAR Is Arbitrary And Thus Inaccurate - WAR, or Wins Above Replacement, is an advanced metric that tries to assess a player's total contribution by including not just hitting, but also baserunning and defense. There are multiple formulae for WAR, and they don't all agree, and as such, nobody - not even the guys who come up with those formulae - think that WAR is utter and definitive. But, hey, it'll do as a general overview stat until something better comes along, and when all the thumbnail sketches line up the same way, you've probably got a good idea of what something looks like.
  • Stats Are For Losers - Mike Greenberg, of all people, made this argument. One can only presume that Mike Golic was giving him an atomic wedgie as he tweeted it; proponents of this ridiculous idea conveniently forget that HR, RBI, and Batting Average are also statistics. Ironically, the stuff that WAR includes that the Triple Crown doesn't - speed, defense, baserunning - are precisely the sort of thing that statheads are constantly accused of missing. 
  • Cabrera's Team Made The Playoffs And Trout's Didn't - This conveniently overlooks a couple of basic facts. One, the Angels won more games than the Tigers. Two, the Angels won them against tougher competition. The AL West had 2 90+ win teams and nearly had a third; the AL Central had 3 90-loss teams. The worst team in the AL West was still running King Felix out there on a regular basis; the AL Central had a team that insisted on letting Luke Hochevar pitch in front of paying customers. In other words, the Angels won more games against better competition than the Tigers did. "But they made the playoffs" is an artifact of the divisional setup.
  • Cabrera Won The Triple Crown And Trout Didn't - This is true, largely because only one guy can win the Triple Crown or it stops being the Triple Crown. On the other hand, it is also true that the Triple Crown Stats are A)an arbitrary selection and B)limited to the subset of baseball skills known colloquially as "hitting". So the argument really boils down to "Cabrera should have it because he was the best power hitter", which is a little less convincing.
  • Cabrera Helped His Team All Year And Trout Didn't - This also true. It probably also wasn't Trout's idea. And the fact that Trout managed to put up such monstrous stats even with missing 20 games would actually seem to point in Trout's favor. After all, he needed less time to do it in. 
  • Trout Wasn't As Hot As Cabrera In September - This line of attack is popular amongst a certain branch of narrativists, most of whom suffer from an inability to remember more than two weeks' worth of events at a time. Last I checked, they didn't award bonus wins for September. The guy who helped dig his team out of a 6-14 hole in May is still digging his team out of a hole when they need him to. He's just being a little more proactive about it.
  • Trout's A Rookie And He'll Get Plenty Of Other Chances - Tell that to Ken Hubbs.


ARGUMENTS AGAINST MIGUEL CABRERA

  • Cabrera Gets "Good Teammate Points" Unfairly - In the offseason, Cabrera's team signed another portly first baseman, which meant that Miggy had to migrate back across the infield, in a scene reminiscent of the march of the dinosaurs in Fantasia, to his former position of 3rd base. His switch was less eventful than the annual ritual of Mike Young holding his breath until he turns blue down Tejas way, seeing as he had previously played 3B and didn't take his displeasure at the move to the media, and some folks think that he's getting way too much credit for being "valuable" over that. Regardless, an established All-Star agreed to move for the good of his team and worked hard, if not always successfully, at performing credibly there. That fits some definitions of valuable. 
  • Cabrera Benefitted From His Ballpark And Division - Yes he did. Comerica Park actually plays as a slightly better offensive joint than Anaheim does; Cabrera did get to bat against the Royals and Twins repeatedly. That being said, short of volunteering for a trade to Petco, what do you want the guy to do? He plays where his team plays, whom his team plays, and the fact remains he produced under those circumstances better than anyone else - even Prince Fielder, who got the exact same Golden Corral buffet of stiffs to hit off of. Favorable circumstances can only take you so far. Eventually you have to produce. And Cabrera did.
  • Cabrera's Defense Was So Horrible It Made The Baby Jesus Kill Kittens - Mike Trout is a superlative center fielder. Cabrera is not. Trout is worth much, much, much more with the glove than Cabrera, by any measure except perhaps the paleolithic abomination that is "fielding percentage". That being said, Cabrera actually turned himself from a horrible 3rd baseman into a slightly below average one this year, depending on which defensive metric you use. Yes, he's far worse in the field than Trout. No, he's not as bad as you think he is.
  • Cabrera's Good Teammate Narrative Is Phony - This largely goes back to Cabrera's unfortunate incidents with alcohol, bad driving, and the law, in various combinations. Proponents of this argument note that all of the "Good teammate because he switched positions" narratives conveniently ignore this stuff, which is probably true. That being said, MVP is not measured on the same metrics as the Lady Byng Trophy, and in any case, Cabrera seems to have cleaned himself up considerably. It's a worthwhile discussion to have, if you want to talk about whether you'd let Cabrera date your sister. It's got less of a place in the MVP discussion.
  • The Triple Crown Is An Antiquated Relic - Yeah, well, so was a lightsaber. Are BA, HR, and RBI the best measure of a player's worth? Absolutely not. But the trio of them together is something deeply rooted in the game's mythology, and that mythology is something that no other sport has. To arbitrarily dismiss it because OBP is a better measure of worth - and I don't argue that it is - is to risk losing some of what makes baseball so unique. And yes, RBI are largely a function of the guys batting ahead of you, but as misleading as they are, you generally have to be pretty decent to rack up a lot of them AND a lot of homers AND a lot of base hits, all at the same time.
  • It Wasn't As Good A Year As [insert season and year here] - Saying that Cabrera's Triple Crown season wasn't as good as Albert Pujols' 2007 or whatever would be great, if the award were "Best Offensive Season In Some Arbitrary Subset Of The Last Ten  Years And Both Leagues". Which it ain't. This is the American League MVP for 2012. Pujols had his shot at it; he doesn't get to drag his 2006 in from the other league when no one's looking.

Ultimately, it comes down to whether you value Cabrera's raw batting output over Trout's better rounded game, or vice versa. Both candidates are worthy; the sky will not fall and Cthulhu will not rise if one or the other is picked. We should celebrate both. We should denigrate neither. And we should definitely stop being complete jackasses about it.




Wednesday, October 03, 2012

This Is Why They Play 162 Games

Playoff odds? They're ABOVE 9000!
You only need to be in first place for one day. The last day.
It doesn't matter if you're 13 games out midseason. That you're starting a rotation made up of five rookies. That your best starting pitcher tested positive for performance-enhancing hollandaise sauce and got suspended for the stretch run. That your outfield was composed of guys who'd signed long-term leases in Pawtucket and guys who'd bombed in Kansas City and a guy who was better known for his workout video than anything else. That your midseason power upgrade came from a guy who looked like he was locked into a AAAA career path. That your bullpen was put together with duct tape and rejects and former minor league first basemen. That you play in a cavernous shell of a stadium that the city fathers have gutted for their cheating boyfriend of a football team, that your payroll is tiny and your location status is in limbo and your decade-ago success has been turned into a punchline by every jock-sniffing sports radio blatherer who decided in grade school that fractions were proof that math was just too damn hard.
That you're down, 5-0, in the last game, against the team that you've got to beat, against their big mid-season pitching pickup. That you're pulling guys out of the bullpen whom the announcers have never heard of because your starting pitcher imploded in the 3rd. That you're relying on guys named Moss and Smith and Donaldson.
A's 12, Rangers 5. This is why they play 162 games.

Too Easy?

Cowboys Stadium, preparing to engage warp drive
We were going to put up a post about how the super uber-modern Starship Enterprise-ish shrine to the Mammon of Foobaw down Dallas way is apparently infested with giant roaches (and not the sort Nate "Fig" Newton used to drive by the van-ful), but the Bears intercepted it.

Monday, October 01, 2012

The Collapse

Sad Pirates fan is sad.
There's never room for all the underdogs.
A month or two ago, if you'd asked me which of the unlikely upstarts charging pell-mell toward a playoff spot was most likely to collapse, I would have picked the Baltimore Orioles. They had a negative run differential. They had an offense built out of spare parts and castoffs. They had the Yankees ahead of them and the pitching-blessed Rays coming up behind them. They were the team of Jeffrey Maier and Raffy Palmiero's butt injections, of desperate flailing in the GM's office and an owner odd enough to rouse Et Tu, Mr. Destructo away from politics for a brilliant, devastating profile.
Or maybe it was the Oakland A's, who'd shed established starting pitching over the offseason like it was RIMM stock, whose outfield looked suspiciously like last year's Pawtucket Red Sox, who ran a rotation full of rookies out there because they had no other option, who were buried under so many bad Moneyball jokes and stadium issues and are-they-moving-to-San-Jose distractions that it was a rare miracle anyone ever talked about what was going on on the field.
The Pittsburgh Pirates, I figured, were safe. They had a budding superstar in Andrew McCutcheon. They had a solid supporting cast. Pedro Alvarez had figured out that hitting baseballs was better than eating cheeseburgers. Closer Joel Hanrahan was a beast, A.J. Burnett had reinvented himself on returning to the National League, and James McDonald had taken steps toward being considered a top-flight starter. They were 16 games over .500. They had a lead in the Wild Card, and they were in striking distance of the NL Central.
And then the wheels fell off. Epically. Historically. Legendarily. They're 5 games under .500 now, with  3 to play. Their run differential is -24, while the Orioles, who clinched a playoff spot tonight, have climbed into positive territory. For the 20th straight year, it's losing baseball in Pittsburgh, and this year may be the biggest heartbreaker of all.
But the thing is, that's baseball. Short attention span types may grumble about the length of the season, but it's the only major sport season long enough to develop extended narratives. The rise and fall, the upstart conqueror, the nail-shredding tension of the pennant race - this is what you get from 162 games that you don't get from 82, or 81, or 16. And if the season was just too long for the Pirates this year, that's a narrative, too, a tragic one for the fans who bought into the magic of early summer, but a real and important and interesting one.
There's not room for all the underdogs, even in a year when payroll-heavy beasts like Philadelphia and Boston come crashing down. There's only a few playoff spots, and if the elegiac tale of Chipper Jones' final go-round takes a slot and the resilient Cardinals post-Pujols take another, then there's no place for the Pirates to go. Not this time, anyway.
But not every story ends in triumph. Tragedy's got its place on the stage, too. And in the words of my people, who dwelt for many years in the shadows of Ebbets Field, "Wait 'til next year."


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