Bryan Joiner

Why then I

Category: MLB

Baseball busts the barometer: A mistake shows how big the game has become

I learned this the hard way. You do not have to. Praise Jebus.

If you write about sports, and you exist somewhere where people know that you write about sports, they will parrot their cockamemie ideas to you whenever they have them. That trope about sports bloggers living in their mothers’ basements? Shit, that’s the best place to be. Mom doesn’t know Manny Ramirez from Handy Manny and if she figures out the difference, at least it’s cute.

I stayed out of the whole Jim Joyce/Armando Galaragga thing at work because I couldn’t stand to hear what my boss had to say about it. I just heard him spouting off to someone else in the office about how to fix instant replay, etc. It was excrutiating, but at least I could put on headphones.

That’s why I disagree with the estimable William F. Leitch (whose name is stuck in the Tag Cloud That Never Updates, below), who’s pointing fingers all over the Internet today at the Twitterati for ruining what he saw as a genuinely inspiring baseball moment. A mistake was made, the victim took it with grace… and yet here “we” were, ripping apart the umpire and the sport for allowing it to happen. I agree that the whole on-field reaction could scarcely have been handled better, nor the postgame reaction amongst the players and ump, all things considered, but to condemn the early accusers? If you’re trying to stop that tide, you might as well try to ask the sun to, you know, just cool it tomorrow morning because you’ve got some extra sleeping to do.

It’s understandable that Leitch would notice—he is, after all, a professional sportswriter. One of the few. Which means he can’t afford to just turn off the background noise to an event. He needs ideas, and sportswriting is as much about striking down bad ones as it is about coming up with good ones on your own. He needs to listen, but none of the rest of us need to. If I don’t like some of the reactions I hear, I can always unfollow someone or ignore what I read. So can 99 percent of America. If you think making an example out of the loudest is the best point you can make—I would counter that the number of voices, and their breadth, speaks positively to baseball’s strong connection to our increasingly connected world, and allows any single baseball game in real time to match the exposure of any one football game (which is, by any measure, a incredible feat)—you’re Sisyphus with a keyboard. If you think you’re going to stop people from having ill-informed opinions on things, you’re wrong.

But if you look at it the other way—people are going to have ill-informed opinions about something, and they have it them about baseball—now you’re getting somewhere. To his credit, Leitch goes through the four “memes” that popped up in the aftermath of the call and evaluates them, but not before admonishing “us,” whoever that is, for “our” conduct. I don’t suppose he’d prefer we were talking about The Real Housewives of New Jersey, because if we were, I do suppose he’d be out of a job. Let’s not miss what baseball has done right here.

Also, let’s not forget that Leitch is a really, really good writer; we’ll just leave the last word to Galarraga, who summed up the call with a smirk and one of the best in-context sports quotes of all-time:

“Nobody’s perfect.”

The Forthcoming Crack

Mere hours now until the crack of the bat, and Fenway at night, and me, still cable-having, taking it all in, wondering whether I’m ready. I mean sure I’m ready now but now isn’t then. Once Josh Beckett throws that first pitch we’re off toward October and there’s no going back. No more trips to the frame store, no more three mile runs in the elongated week just after Daylight Savings Time, no more whipping up last-minute travel plans, trying to get home. Baseball will be back and after a week it will hard to remember a time that it wasn’t there, pacing life like a metronome.

Cannot WAIT for baseball

Spring sprung once but went away and it’s 35 degrees today. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s Opening Day in the freezing cold. Cubs Cubs Cubs: it’s always about the Cubs. A few years ago I went to Game 2 of the season, Mets/Cubs, with my uncle. Sammy Sosa was on 499 home runs and belted one to left. Everyone stood up, but the ball froze midair and dropped into the outfielder’s glove. We sat back down and drank hot chocolate. A few years before, I was in Chicago, at Cubs Opening Night, or something resembling it. All I remember is the freeze.

I know it was like this when I was a kid but it doesn’t always feel that way. I remember in 1994 it had to be (or 1992 or 1993) when I rushed home from school on April 1st-ish to watch the Sox play Toronto. Afternoon game. Got there after the piece de resistance: Jack Clark grand slam. HOOOOOO doggies. That’s all anyone talked about the next day. Might have been his first year with the team and the expectations were set, but never met. Last year Dustin Pedroia homered on Day One following his MVP season and basically stopped going deep after that. But he had a flair for the dramatic.

Then there were all the Pedro moments, good and bad. Pedro was never really ready to go on Opening Day, as far as I could remember, and I (and we) always attributed this to him being so little and so Platonically Dominican. He doesn’t warm up until May. Unlike Clemens, who brought the noise one year so hard he was 6-0 or something like 10-0 and there was talk of winning 30 games and I was like I can’t believe this guy is on my team. It’s the big legs that do it.

I don’t like Sox/Yankees to start. I don’t like it much at all. Too many times into the fire for me, taking abuse at Yankee Stadium. I could basically do away with the Sunday night game. As a showcase of baseball, it’s painfully limited. Gotta get every team in around the Sox, Yankees, Mets, and Cubs. Schedule the Giants and pray for Lincecum, but get stuck with Kirk Reuter (not really, but you get it). Fitting that those games won’t be on MLB.tv and I’d have to watch the game at a bar. I hate baseball at bars. I get too drunk to follow what’s going on. That’s why I like that beers are so expensive at the stadium. Keeps me in line, even if it’s hard enough to follow shit in the crazy environment, and then I’m calculating fantasy points and batting averages…

Here’s what I want this year. I want to maybe go to Yankee Stadium, but not for a Sox game. Too much trouble. I want to go to a Braves game to finish out the comet tail of the Everything Comes Back to Atlanta phase. Could be at Sheatifield, but I’m not going for the Mets’ sake. Ever. I want to watch as many Sox games as possible on my computer and know the little things the players do that don’t show up in the box score or game story. I want to see Pedroia knock doubles down the line and I want to have an opinion on who’s cooler: Beckett or Lester. I don’t want Dice-K to get within an Acela ride of the pitcher’s mound unless he’s learned how to throw strikes, but it’s probably too late for that. I root for the guy, but I don’t.

It’s 35 degrees out and baseball starts in eight days and I’ll probably go to a bar to watch it and get too drunk.

Sox Aiming For Halladay

That’s the gist of a post on ESPN.com right now. The Red Sox are going after Blue Jays starter Roy Halladay. I hate to break the news to them, but no sh!t. We all know the Red Sox are going after Roy Halladay. It’s what the Red Sox do. It’s what makes them so loathed nation-wide among non New England ex-pats. “You hate the Yankees? You are the Yankees!” When you can’t afford your players, we take them.

I have mixed feelings about this. I like seeing the Red Sox win but I don’t like seeing smaller-market teams losing their best players because they can’t afford to pay them. In this case, it’s on priciple, because Toronto can go f*ck itself (that’s another story). At least in the world’s other great uncapped sports leagues—European soccer leagues—there’s an element of teamwork that’s incumbent for overpaid players to learn playing together. In baseball, it’s as simple as calling for a fly ball so you don’t knock heads; otherwise, just do what you’re going to do. There’s very little chance for a team to get any element of “teamwork” down to overcome their enormous disadvantage. It’s either shrewd management or luck. Usually the second one.

That being said, my favorite thing about watching the Yankees win this year was Mark Teixeira. That guy knows how to play defense, which is refreshing for an AL first baseman. Not knocking Kevin Youkilis, who’s also very good, but Tex made a few plays that I’d never seen anywhere else. Sometimes it’s nice to see that if you pay for the best you do get it, and there is some sort of aesthetic reward for those who get to watch. Most modern iterations of the “buying the championship” team aren’t as lively and obviously multitalented as these Yankees are; such is the result of the wild card and the resulting “two great pitchers and you win” ethos.

Blah, blah, blah, baseball. That’s how I feel about Roy Halladay stories on ESPN.com. Let me know when there’s actual news.

Back To One

In Heaven, there’s a whiteboard. Today it will be someone’s job to go and erase the number on there. Yesterday, it was 3,297. For the last nine years, somebody has added 1 to the singles column, but today whoever pulls the job—a bummer on this day, as far as jobs in Heaven go—will take an eraser to the whole thing. There won’t be any ghost numbers left on the board from ink stains. This is Heaven, and the board works perfectly. No, the only number up there today will be a big, fat 1.

So it ends, a near-decade without a Yankees title. Really, I’ve got nothing to complain about. To say it was a good run is a tremendous understatement. Sure, it was close at times, but the 2004 Red Sox showed us the value of “close.” Joe Buck still says Dave Roberts was out. Joe Buck can eat it.

If you are a Yankees fan and are reading this: you have won. Yours is once again the best team in baseball. It really is a stupefyingly good baseball team, ranking up there with the Sox’ title winners and the 2002 Angels of the teams of the decade. Today, and only today, you should celebrate their victory without regard to their status as as a colossus built upon stacks of money. Today, you are allowed to cheer.

Tomorrow you will be reviled. In 1996, a Yankees title was welcomed by a portion of the nation that like to see baseball’s traditional powerhouse back at the top. In 2009, it’s a little different. There were no truly lean years; there was only one year they didn’t make the playoffs. That was last year, and oh, was it glorious. Unfortunately yet predictably, it spurred a Newtownian spending spree. Their action over before October, the reaction was to get the best players on the market at whatever the price.

With CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett and Mark Teixeira on the squad, the Yankees weren’t picked by everyone as odds-on favorites, but they were picked by some. Then the games started, and they lost their first eight meetings with the Red Sox… who barely seemed to relish it. At least outwardly, the teams had switched places. Now Boston was the squad full of humorless automatons, and the Yankees played with passion. Once they started beating the Red Sox, they stuck themselves at the top of the division, staying there with come-from-behind and stay-ahead victories galore. The only question from July on was whether or not they could do it in October, “when it matters.” Or, if you prefer, “in the clutch.”

Ah yes, “the clutch.” Bugaboo of some sports journalists, sacred ground to others, “the clutch” leads to the most violent verbal battles in baseball today. Were the Yankees the best team in baseball before they won the World Series? Some would say yes, others would say no—that the World Series would decide it. Both sides have merit, or at least precedents. Like those who would crown the Yankees prior to the Series, no one confuses the winner of the World Series of Poker with the best poker player in the World. There are games, there are variables, and a “champion” is crowned. Will they be a good poker player? Almost certainly. Will they be the best? Almost certainly not (though this year, it is possible).

Conversely, in football, no one would bestow the title of the “best team in football” upon anyone until after the Super Bowl. Maybe it’s because football’s disparate elements—the block, the pass, the catch—only exist in the context of the game. The act of hitting a baseball can be separated out from the game, and the whole concept of the World Series of Poker is built atop a game. The more gray area there is, the more we’re willing to pronounce the end winner as the best.

For years, though, the Yankees have stocked their roster and come up short… and this after a decade where everything went their way. No baseball team in a 30-team league should win four World Series in five years and come three outs from another, like they did in the late ’90s; that’s skill combined with luck. When the Yankees chased that success with money in the ’00s, it wasn’t forthcoming. The Great Evening Out had begun, and it lasted almost a decade. Whether it was talent or money or just plain luck that snapped it, who knows? All we know is that it’s over.

The fear is that this is the first of many, and it’s a fear that lies dormant inside me, but not forever. To win two, you must win one. Until today, the Yankees hadn’t done that. Now the real fear begins to creep in. Tomorrow, someone will put a 2 on that board, the next day a 3, the next day a 4. The Yankees are champs, but a new dynasty isn’t set in stone. The number always exists, and all we can do is hope that it gets larger every day.

Game Six Preview, Ridiculous MVP Talk

The end is nigh, folks. Tonight you get to hear two words not associated with the World Series since 2003: Game Six. That’s an egregious shame.

Pedro Martinez will take the hill against Andy Pettitte in the battle of guys who pitched in the 1999 ALCS. Other than that, there’s not much to talk about. We’re all familiar enough with these teams at this point. So I’m going to say something about the MVP.

Some people have posited that Chase Utley is in line to win the MVP even if the Phillies lose. This is an absolute joke. There’s absolutely no way this will happen. If fans are blinded enough by Yankee pinstripes to egregiously screw up one major award, and writers are always at risk of handing out bogus season-ending hardware, what makes anyone think that, in the champagne-soaked moments following a Yankee victory, anyone is going to go, “Hey, let’s go with the guy from Philadelphia!”?

Okay, someone might think so, but the Yankees always have a weapon: Mariano Rivera. If voters can’t decide who should get it, they can always give it to the Guy Who Will Never Win The Cy Young Award. Or, if Alex Rodriguez does anything in the clinching victory, they can give it to him as a validation of his “breakout” postseason. But wait, you might say—those aren’t the criteria for the award! It’s “value” in the World Series, and that’s all! The problem is that like the season-long MVP awards, “value” gets so tied up with team performance that most voters just take the easy way out and conflate them. If Barry Bonds couldn’t win the MVP for a losing team with a .471 batting average, .700 OBP and 1.294 slugging percentage, why would Utley? Because of his hair?

Even in the event of a Philly World Series victory, Utley may not be the choice. Any victory would go through Game Seven, and that means going through whatever’s left in Cliff Lee’s arm. If he played reliever for six shutout innings, the award would be his to lose. But it doesn’t matter either way—ultimately, the World Series MVP is pretty worthless anyway. How’s it working out for Cole Hamels?

The Phillies Live For Another 48 Hours

We now know the real difference between the Phillies and the Yankees: it’s in the bullpen. They’re both shaky… until the very end. When the Yankees have a lead in the ninth inning, they win. When the Phillies have a lead, they might win.

That, more than any reason, is why a Phillies team that is otherwise demonstrably better than last year’s may not win this year’s World Series. They’ve added Cliff Lee, Pedro Martinez, and Jayson Werth has made the jump from WWE lookalike to 38-home run smacking WWE lookalike; still, the Phillies have lost their edge. Last year, Brad Lidge was untouchable. This year, everyone in the bullpen is getting roughed up. Last night, Charlie Manuel went to Ryan Madsen—a player with such a sad early history that we named an award for futility after him in our fairytale baseball league—up three runs in the ninth inning. He let the first two guys on, and only a double play ball by Captain Clutch Jeter got him out of a giant mess. Johnny Damon singled, but Madsen got the suddenly slumping Mark Teixeira to end it. A-Rod never got a chance to gallop into history.

Now the series heads back to New York, with the Yankees in an interesting position. On the bright side, they get to face Pedro again, and it’s entirely possible that they launch a NASA-like program off his arm. On the negative side, they have Andy Pettitte starting a game six on three days’ rest, and Pettitte’s up-and-down postseason history seems overdue for a down (especially against this lineup). If they Phillies are somehow able to win game six, they’ll enter game seven in a situation they haven’t found themselves in all year: they’ll be without a solid starter, but the closer situation will be locked down. You have to figure that Cliff Lee will be pitching whenever the Phils need him… if we get that far.

After the Red Sox beat the Yankees in game five of the 2004 ALCS, the signs on the highway all read “Red Sox 5, Yankees 4,” knowing that both teams would pass underneath them on their way back to New York. Each win seemed to give the Sox strength. After last night’s win, there was no jubilation from the Phillies. They high-fived but for the most part did so with lips pursed, business-like. Maybe they’re not confident they can win two in a row, or maybe they’re not content to celebrate until the job’s done. They’ve got 48 hours to draw up a game plan, insofar as there is one besides “just win.” They came out swinging against A.J. Burnett last night, making sure that he couldn’t get ahead of them with the fastball to drop the curve on them. The teams will scout Martinez and Pettitte and reconvene at 7:57 tomorrow. It’ll all be over by this time on Friday, folks. Drink it up.

Is A-Rod Really “Clutch” Now?

Did Johnny Damon give the Yankees their 27th title with an alert baserunning play? Sure, CC and A-Rod and Teixeira and Posada and even Brad Lidge helped a little bit, but the Damon play might be the one to have secured the hardware for the Stanks. We’ll never know how Lidge would have pitching if Damon was on second base instead of third—when, stealing second base, he simply continued to a third base unoccupied because of the “Teixeira shift”—and whether the series would have actually been any different because of it. But if this series ends as we all think it’s going to end, this is the moment from which we can create stories. The Yankees seeing an opportunity and, after nine long years, taking it.

The series not over, but it’s close. For the Phillies to win, they’ll need something of a repeat performance from Cliff Lee, for Pedro Martinez to avoid for a second time the possibility of Yankee onslaught at the new Stadium, and for Cole Hamels to finally show up for the postseason. The Yankees will have to concurrently implode, with A.J. Burnett turning in one of his vintage Fenway performances, Andy Pettitte turning in one of his vintage Game 6 performances, and CC turning in one of his vintage playoff performances. Even then, it might not be enough. The ball has been bouncing against the Yankees for nine years. At some point, they have to get the breaks. On top of that, they have the better team. It’s not impossible for the Phillies to catch up, but it’s unlikely. Plan for the worst, hope for the best.

It probably didn’t escape anyone’s notice that the guy who got the game winning hit last night was A-Rod, a guy who was excoriated for not being “clutch” so many times that he had a pro bono defense league among “sabermetricians” who otherwise hated him. They’d cite small playoff sample sizes, as if there was any excuse for the highest-paid baseball being so bad he was dropped from the lineup in the 2006 ALDS against Detroit. Michael Schur, aka Ken Tremendous of Fire Joe Morgan, has been Tweeting comparison stats all postseason that usually show A-Rod’s numbers to be comparable to his former buddy Derek Jeter. That’s well and dandy, but those numbers include this year’s playoffs; without this year’s explosion, A-Rod’s numbers are pedestrian or worse. Fans who pointed out that A-Rod failed in the clutch were simply pointing out the obvious.

Now that he’s turned it around, Will Leitch says “R.I.P, A-Rod Isn’t Clutch Meme.” First of all, I’m loathe to discuss any meme not involving Keyboard Cat. Second of all, calling it a “meme” implies it’s something silly and frivolous (It wasn’t. He hadn’t hit in the playoffs. It was true. God forbid someone watch something as dreadfully important as baseball and say the most obvious thing to pop into their heads). Third, the point Leitch, Schur and others make isn’t that anyone is clutch: players are simply good or they’re not. It’s a fair point. But A-Rod’s emergence now doesn’t obscure his very real failures in the past, the same way Barry Bonds’ monster 2002 postseason doesn’t obscure his performances in years prior. The difference is that A-Rod will probably win this year, and to a great many people, that will be all that matters. He’ll have his title. If we really want to speak truth to power, let’s not forget why the “meme” was started now that it’s dead.

Of course, as John Elway shows, winning once might be all that matters, and A-Rod is finally poised to do just that.

Derek Jeter and the Hank Aaron Award

Tonight, Derek Jeter received the Hank Aaron award for the “top offensive player” in the American League. Derek Jeter is a great baseball player. He batted .334 this season, with 18 home runs and 66 RBIs. If you’re into OBP and slugging percentage, he rocked .406 (not bad!) and .465 (pretty good!). Also, his team won 103 games. That’s excellent!

He was not, however, the best offensive player in the American League.

Joe Mauer, the catcher for the Minnesota Twins, led the American League in batting average. He hit .365. (That’s excellent!) If you like OBP, he got on base at a .444 clip (Wow!), also to lead the AL. And slugging? His .587 clip beat all comers (Golly!). Not only that, he put together impressive numbers for homers (28) and RBI (96). Notice what all these numbers have in common? No, not that they’re awesome (But they are!). They’re all better than Jeter’s.

Every. Single. One of them.

Let that sink in for a second. This award isn’t like the MVP, the “valuable” condition of which lends itself to interpretation. But maybe Dude X made the clubhouse better! No; this award is for offense. Nor is it like the Hall of Fame, which encourages voters to include character-related factors in the vote. Albert Belle was a poophead, and I’m not going to vote for him! None of that here. You could kick your dog in public and you’d still be eligible for this trophy. It’s all about how offensive you are.

(Chase Utley just hit a home run; huzzah!)

Before I got on a tear here, one more time: Jeter is a great baseball player. But he’s not the offensive player Joe Mauer is. Nor is he the defensive player, but that’s not important at the moment… unless it is. Mauer will win the MVP award; the Twins sneaking into the playoffs basically clinched that. Maybe the voters wanted to recognize Jeter somehow, and, realizing that his long-suffering efforts to win an MVP (When will he be recognized for his contributions? It’s like no one ever talks about him) were going to fall short yet again, decided to give him a lesser trophy. Well I’ve got bad news: giving out hardware to those who don’t deserve it devalues the hardware itself, the name associated with it, and the game they’re playing. There are times when legitimate disagreements can be had about a hitter’s value; this is not one of them. By giving Jeter an award he did not earn, the voters have devalued the award. Derek Jeter’s greatness is secure without changing the rules for him. Let’s let the story be the story, and not try to write a new one to serve our own ends.*

* And as we, the fans, voted on this, I’m talking to you.

The World Series Is Over (Update)

Coachie has been all over this from the beginning, but it’s worth saying it now: the World Series is over. The next few days might bring great, plot-rich baseball, but the tension is gone. The story has been written. The Yankees are World Champions.

The half of you who hate the Yankees will say that I’m giving up too soon and the half that loves them will say I’m trying to pull some sort of voodoo “reverse jinx.” Sadly, both of these are wrong. I belived until right now that the Yankees could not win the World Series. I saw the strength of other teams, I saw the Yankees’ flaws, and I thought that given the remaning task and the obstacles in their way that there was a chance they could be derailed through injuries, slumps, and the bounces of the ball. Tonight that chance has been reduced to zero.

2004 may loom in the minds of many, but that’s a bad comparison. That year, the Red Sox had the feel of a team on a mission, and Yankee inevitability had been stretched to such absurd limits by Aaron Boone and their 3-0 series lead that the tension broke. Any baseball statistician will tell you that the chances of beating a very good team four times in a row is hard, but they will also say that it’s hard for them to beat you three times in a row if your team is good, and that if one team has beaten the crap out of a comparable team over any stretch of time it will eventually even out. It was just time for the Red Sox; I think that, now, it is time for the Yankees. Their teams have just been too good over the last nine years for their postseason failures to continue, especially now that they’ve got a team of this level two wins away.

If there’s any anecdotal measure by which to judge the series, it all works in the Yankees’ favor. As CF noted in his baseball preview, this Yankee team appears to be more cohesive than those of years past, and that the loose locker room has kept a group of the world’s best baseball players ready to do their jobs. The chances that this group cracks hard enough to lose three out of four games to a team that, frankly, they’re better than seems unlikely. Only a CC Sabathia meltdown of epic proportions could keep Philly’s hopes alive, by both evening up the series and casting a black cloud for the Yankees over a potential game seven with Sabathia on the hill.

But that too seems unlikely. Sabathia doesn’t seem to dominate great teams the way he dominates lesser ones, but he’s still a very good pitcher, and his October record is bound to adjust toward career norms at some point. For all the silly A-Rod/True Yankees business we’ve been exposed to this year, has anyone bestowed baseball’s greatest fake honor upon CC? And doesn’t it seem sort of inevitable?

The problem is not that I will believe it will happen, but that it doesn’t matter what happens later today. The Yankees are going to win the World Series now because they are the best baseball team on the planet and they only need to win two more games. A Phillies win would be one for history books, but only because of its sheer implausibility. Tonight, the World Series ended.

UPDATE: Scratch this. Choose life.