Thoughts about our National Pastime and occasional thoughts for the Good and Welfare of the Reader (and maybe the writer)

Friday, February 27, 2009

Spring Trainng is Really not about the Game

I said yesterday that I do not want to write about steroids and I still don't. ARod did not make the 150 mile bus trip but this guy was ready. I asked him why and he mumbled something that sounded like, "My 15 minutes bro. My 15 minutes."

The final score is interesting to some people and the Yankees lost to the Twins in the game I saw today. The A team (well the B+ team) won the first three at bats, but when it was time for the B players and C players to take over, as they say in the Bronx, fuhgeddaboudit.

But, it is not about the score, it is about the players. To me, the big winners were Ian Kennedy and Brett Gardner.

Kennedy was masterful facing his six batters -- Strike Out, Fly Out, Walk, Ground Out, Fly Out, Single, Strike Out, Strike Out. The pitchers are always supposed to be ahead of the hitters this early, three of the four starters I saw this week were not. Kennedy is the one who was.

Gardner, with two hits and two stolen bases, is real and that complicates an already complicated Yankee outfield picture. Put his early Spring production alongside Melky Cabrera and Xavier Nady's 0 for 6 and you have to concede that there is now a race for the center field post. The Cabrera_Gardner thing is only one traffic jam that Joe Girardi has to sort out. There is also the left field/designated hitter dilemma.

Johnny Damon is now a left fielder. Matsui is a left fielder, with less range. Nick Swisher can play left field, but his bat is louder than his glove. None of the above could venture into right field where you also have to have some ability to first see and then reach the cut off man. Xavier Nady is the only legitimate right fielder in the bunch unless you want to include Justin Christian, who is more likely to join the minor league camp in due course, still looking for a way to hit.

On the Twins side, you had to feel sorry for Scott Baker and you might have wondered about Brian Duensing. Baker has been tagged with the opening day pitcher distinction, but the Yankees did not find him a challenge. And, Duensing, who would have liked to look good in front of the big team's coaches, didn't.

I enjoyed watching Mike Cuddyer bat. I have always heard the term, "Professional At Bat," and the only definition I can come up with is an at bat that wears down the pitcher and has a happy ending, although the happy ending part is not guaranteed. Here is Cuddyer facing Eric Hacker -- Hi Inside, Foul, Foul, Foul, Foul, Foul, High Inside, High Inside, Foul, Foul, sharply hit over the shortstop for a single.

Cuddyer, by the way, is involved in the Twins' version of the Yankees outfield grab bag. Cuddyer, Span, Kubel, Gomez and Young all competing for three field positions and a DH slot. I am guessing Kubel, who homered today, is the DH-designate and Young is the odd man out.

Coming attractions: Monday, I will be in Jupiter to watch the Cardinals and the Rays. And, this week, I will spend some time writing about economics and the business of baseball.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Remembering Yankee Stadium

I am off to Fort Myers tomorrow to see the Twins and the Yankees and I don't feel like writing about steroids, how much money the $teinbrenners spent during the off season, or whether Ian Kennedy or Phil Hughes will be first to live up to his potential. That last point, by the way, would re-direct me into writing about how Jason Johnson and Ricky Nolasco and how Joe Girardi is not the best pitcher handling manager.

On the Twins side, I could write about how they are the mirror image of the Yankees, more or less standing pat and relying their home grown guys, Mauer and Morneau, to make them competitive in the tough AL Central. Or, I could write about they averted contraction when a judge made up a new law.

But what I got to thinking about was Yankee Stadium -- the old one where I saw my very first baseball game or the new one, built for a Wall Street that no longer exists.

Writing about he new one is tempting. We have all gotten used to the Obama Sandwich by now -- starting with an earnest opening expression of a problem and ending with a detail-deficient solution. In the middle he delivers a populist attack on an obvious easy target that has little to do with the solution, but stirs the audience. The first corporate executive to sign up for a dugout to dugout first row seat at $2,500 (81 games x $2,500 = $202,500) or, for one of the luxury suites that will go from $600,000 to $800,000 can count on starring in the next one of those Obamagrams.

So instead, let's take a minute Remembering Yankee Stadium. That, by the way, is the title of a superb history of the Stadium written by my good friend Harvey Frommer. Harvey is a prolific author who has focused, in recent years, on the Yankees. But, he is broader than that, having written about 40 sports books ranging from assisting with Nolan Ryan's autobiography to several oral histories, compiled with his wife, Myrna Katz Frommer (who happens to be a high school classmate of mine).

RYS is his latest and it belongs on the bookshelf of anyone who calls himself a Yankee fan or who has ever experienced The House that Ruth Built. It combines both narrative and oral history (I contributed a short essay about my first trip to the Stadium -- you will find it on page 78). Harvey has a wide set of contacts and reaches out in all directions to get people to talk to him.

There is a great quote from Frank Howard, recalling his first look at the home team locker room; from Gene Conley, remembering an all-star game where he met Babe Ruth; from a former Yankee bat boy, Mario Cuomo and, of course, Rudy Giuliani. No book about the Yankees would be complete with some Giuliani.

Besides that, it is one of the best looking books you will ever see. The layout, intersperses those real quotes from real people with the narrative and, in between, some truly terrific photos. I like the ones of the fans in the early days when guys wore suits and ties to go to the ballgame.

Oh well. As it turns out, Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers is a nice spring training venue and up I-75, Legend Field, where the Yankees play is one of the best in Florida. Since I may never be able to afford a seat at the New Yankee Stadium, I am grateful to have a month of spring training games every year and memories of the original.

Spring Training Has Arrived

The game was a gift to the players struggling to find a roster spot, thanks partly to the World Baseball Classic. With Melvin Mora and Cesar Izturis leaving for the WBC, the O’s decided to go whole hog and field a second string team, a rarity on opening day. Ty Wigginton was at 3rd for Mora, Chris Gomez at short for Izturis, Ryan “Fragile” Freel at 2nd for Brian Roberts, and some forgettable stranger at 1st for Aubey Huff.

Fragile Freel did OK. He singled, stole second and scored in his first at bat. Later he went into the hole for an “all pro” stop and he did not get hurt.

Many of us who play Strat-o-Matic or who otherwise participate in some fantasy league or another know all about Freel. We draft him in the hope that we were going to enjoy his break out year, and watched him he lose 30 games here and 60 games with various ailments, breaks and blisters..Maybe the air in Baltimore and the heady atmosphere in the cellar of the AL East will be just what he needs. For Strat players, he is not a good choice. He had 131 at bats for Cincinnati last year and his card projects to be only about at the top of the third third, based on productivity. Wigginton saw about three times the number of at bats and his rating puts him much higher, just below the top 30%, but well behind Mora. His versatility will ensure him a lot of playing time.

Dave Tremblay said afterwards that he sent the starting infield to a back field to practice together more intensely. He thought they need more time together before the left side of the infield leaves camp for the WBC. I guess he had no confidence that his pitchers would force enough ground balls. He was right – the first three Oriole pitchers were candidates for the 4th and 5th rotation spot. Brad Hennessey tightened up and complained about elbow soreness, so he had to be pulled in the 2nd inning (after walking the first two batters) and both David Pauley and Chris Waters did not, I am being charitable, show their best.

The commissioner’s office is looking at the trend of not playing a full roster of starters in spring games. He wants MLB to show their best even if the games do not count. Wait, maybe he plans to award a wild card spot to the teams with the best Cactus and Grapefruit League records. A league official told me that the problem is that the $17-million dollar auto salesman turned team owner turned owners’ commissioner cannot police and punish, so it is not the toughest rule they have.

And, knowing that, the Mets did not bring Reyes, Wright, Beltran and Delgado to Fort Lauderdale. I guess they did not want to charter a second bus nor risk having their big money guys on I-95.

Nevertheless, you would have thought that the Orioles were the visiting team, even if the infield had played. There were many more Mets fans in the stands than there were Orioles boosters. And, despite the more or less plausible explanation for changing the infield, there was no explanation for the missing outfielders – Pie and Markakis. Only Adam Jones (two strikeouts, a walk and a nice catch) and Greg Zaun started. Zaun is going to feel his aches and pains – he is the only catcher on the 40-man roster. There are seven others on the invitee list, so Zaun got the rest of the day off after three at bats.

One of the seven, Robby Hammock, hit a major league double and then huffed and puffed his way into a tag at third. Not the sort of thing a 31-year old who was commuted between Phoenix (the Diamondbacks) and Tucson (AAA) since 2003 wanted to do in his next best shot at more than a cup of coffee.

Actually, it is sort of bittersweet to watch those Spring Training Invitees. Some of them have real futures – younger minor leaguers who are not yet on the 40-man rosters but are invited to at least start the spring season with the big team and show what they can do before getting their minor league assignment. Mike Antonini, a 25-year old pitcher in the Mets camp is one of those – he was drafted out of college in 2007 and reached AA last year.

The other categories are the older guys with the minor league contracts who are trying to find their way onto the 40-man roster, if not among the 25 actives, for one more payday. Most of them should be home looking for a high school coaching job or, if these were normal times, a gig selling cars. But, here they are, taking their cuts and hoping to hang on. When you see a familiar name, with a number on their uniform in the sixties, it is hard not to root for them. On the Met’s side there were Bobby Kielty, trying to get back to the majors despite hitting .228 at Pawtucket last year and Rob Mackowiak, trying again after hitting a robust .132 with Washington. Familiar names like John Parrish and Jolbert Cabrera were in Orioles white. But, the most stunning was Danys Baez who has not started a major league game since 2002.

Every team has its older guy mascot – someone who shows up every year to help with the coaching and to give the fans a twinge of nostalgia. A few years ago, Johnny Pesky was autographing his book before a Red Sox spring game. Red Schoendienst is a fixture in Jupiter when the Cardinals are there. The O’s long time legend Elrod Hendricks used to fill that role until his death in 2005. It was nice to see Mike Cuellar sitting with pitching coach Rick Kranitz. Kranitz must have been wondering if Cuellar had some heat left.

Tomorrow, I am off to Ft. Myers to see the Twins and whoever the Yankees send down I-75 to play them.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Finding Value in Camden Yards

Have you ever been on an airplane and noticed that, as soon as it lands, most people jump up and get very antsy until they are able to leave the plane (and even angry if there is a delay in opening the doors)? They are acting out an Economic principle.

In classical economics, value is seen as a combination of price and utility – in other words, how much money a buyer is willing to exchange for a good or a service is dependent on how useful the buyer perceives the good or service to be. What baffles economists is how to measure the value of time – in other words how much time will a person expend in order to achieve a result.

We perceive a value in getting from one place to another quickly and we pay accordingly to fly in an airplane. Once we have reached our destination, we no longer see value in sitting idly on the transport, so we rush to get out and go about our business.

Today’s question is what our expectation of value is when we invest in a season ticket or simply invest the time to care about how a team competes. I am guessing there is a limit to how much time we are willing to spend on that team and that limit manifests itself in how soon we leave a game, whether we show up at all near the end of the season and, importantly to the owner, our propensity to renew our real investment in the tickets.

I thought of all of that today as I am getting ready to sit among Orioles fans, many of whom timed their late winter escape from Baltimore to watch the start of what they hope will be the resurgence of their team, but what is very likely to be another disappointing season. I just do not know how they can compete in the AL East with the questions that surround the rotation. Is Koji (penciled in as the #2 starter) another Dice K? Does Hendrickson have enough left to be the #4 and are they kidding with Brad Hennessey at #5?

There is a saying in baseball – every team knows they are going to win 54 games and lose 54 games. It is what you do with the third 54 that counts. The question is -- where is the value?

The minimum expectation is 54. But, losing 108 games is rare and clearly not acceptable. The MLB record in the modern era is 119 losses (Detroit Tigers – 2003). The modern era NL had three teams lose 111 (1941 Phillies, 1963 Mets, 2004 Arizona Diamondbacks).

No one is going to be spending time and money, even at the superior right field barbecue stand at Camden Yards, on a team that is on track to win 54.

At the other end of the standings, Casey Stengel was once quoted as saying, “The Yankees don't pay me to win every day, just two out of three." Even George $teinbrenner did not really think that. It is a rare team that wins 108. The Mariners and the Cubs hold the single season record, both won 116, the Mariners in 2001, the Cubs in 1906.

How about 81? If, as some say, baseball is a game of failure, then breaking even is probably a good thing. Last year, the lower wild card team, Milwaukee, won 90. The Dodgers won 84 in the woeful NL West to get into the playoffs

Maybe based on that, we ought to go with 81 wins as a respectable outcome, worthy of continued fan support. But, not all 81 wins are the same. Here is what would have happened had we taken the team that came closest to 81 wins and promoted them to that level in 2008.

In the American League East, with 81 wins Baltimore would have still finished in last place. In the Central, 81 wins would have tied Kansas City with Cleveland for 3rd place, a reachable until the end, 7.5 games out of first. In the West, 81 would have been two more wins for Texas, but they would still have finished in 2nd place, but the Angels would have been looking over their shoulders.

In the National League East, 81 wins for Atlanta would have kept them where they were, behind the Marlins. In the Central, give Cincinnati 81 wins and they still trail St. Louis and lead only the Pirates. But, in the West, the 81 wins would have put Colorado just a game behind the D-Backs, still in third place, but keeping us interested until the end.

What that tells me is that wins alone are not a good measure of value. I think we need to factor in another statistic to account for the division in which a team plays. My candidate is Number of Games in Contention. In other words, at what point does a team step on the brake, shed the big dollar contracts and start calling up the AA kids to play catch in the bigs.

For some teams the throw-in-the-towel date comes as early as the All-Star break, for others in might be sometime in August. For the Marlins, for example, it was about the second week in September. This is not the date when the team is eliminated mathematically; it is a more subjective, but fairly obvious, measure. Except for the handful of players playing for incentives or for next year’s appearance before the arbitrator, everyone else is operating at three-quarter speed, hoping to avoid a late-season injury that would interfere with their planned trip to Las Vegas.

Sorry, Orioles fans, that date is more likely to be earlier, rather than later this year.

Mike Berardino writes about Matt Wieters in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Weiters, the next phenom who is meant to save the Oriole franchise is a catcher from Georgia Tech. He is the number one prospect in the Baseball America top 100 and John Sickels writes, “If you can find a serious flaw in Matt Wieters, plese let me know because I can’t find any.”

Berardino says, in today's article, “Informed estimates have that debut coming sometime around June 1.” That is good enopugh for me to call it the beginning of the out of contention season for the O’s. From then on, you will be able to walk up to Oriole Park at Camden Yards and buy a good ticket at the box office, not two blocks away from the guy in the dirty raincoat.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Opening Day -- Spring Training

The first game of the spring training season is tomorrow and I will be in Seat 9, Row I, Box 13 to watch the Mets visit the Orioles.

I am (or should be) a Marlins fan, Right? I live in Marlin country; I have a 41-game ticket plan; I went to the Holiday Party and the Fan Fest. So, why am I opening the season watching the hated Mets, who will fall apart in September and lowly Orioles, a team that most observers think will lose 100 games?

One reason is that Marlins management put their tickets on sale one week later than did most of the other teams and with Orioles selling tickets and the Marlins not selling tickets, I went for it.

Yes, the economy is bad and attendance might be down and I could have waited a week. But, when things are tough, baseball seems to rise up. I have read about how, in World War II, FDR encouraged MLB to keep playing because baseball was essential for the morale of the nation. And, it was from the mound in Yankee Stadium that President Bush rallied New York after September 11th.

So, the Marlins lost me for opening day because I did not want to miss out on opening day. Did I mention that the Orioles play in a park about 20 minutes from home and the Marlins and Cardinals about a half hour further up the road? The hated Mets play a half hour beyond and another 20 minutes or so was that great shrine to spring training, the now disused Dodgertown at Vero Beach. I am going to miss going there. It was a fairly new, great ballpark in a historical setting.

Another reason why I was not all that keen to wait for the Marlins is that too many Marlins will be absent at the beginning of the spring season because they are playing on various national teams in the World Baseball Classic, an abortion of a tournament held to maximize the disruption to the US season.

From the Fish Stripes blog “Florida's biggest marquee attraction this year is All-Star shortstop Hanley Ramirez, who will be participating on the Dominican Republic squad. Closer Matt Lindstrom will represent Team USA. Mexico's squad will feature all-purpose Alfredo Amezaga and third baseman Jorge Cantu. Venezuela will have a couple of Marlins pitchers, starter Anibal Sanchez and reliever Renyel Pinto. And, Rick VandenHurk will play for the Netherlands.

That is not all bad – a lot of the younger guys will get more early playing time, but it does blunt the attraction somewhat. While Cantu is gone, we will get a good look at Gaby Sanchez, touted as the 1st baseman of the future and Emilo Bonifacio might get some playing time at shortstop.

But over and above the opportunities provided to some of the kids, The WBC creates an injury risk and, Team USA is handicapped, for example, by Jeter’s situation.

Mark Feinsand who writes about the Yankees for the NY Daily News (an odd newspaper, the sports writers are fluent in proper English, the front page writers can barely spell their own names) quoted Yankee manager Joe Girardi (another Marling management mistake) talking about Derek Jeter’s sore hamstring, “"It's awful early to be playing meaningful games. Is his hamstring bad? No. It's a little sore. Guys are going to go through sore periods during this time in spring training. That's why we do this before we start playing games."

Another reason for not liking the WBC – the Asian teams have been assembled and practicing for six weeks. The Latin American teams are coming off their winter seasons and their own regional championship. Team USA? They just got to camp last week.

But opening day is opening day and I will be there and when whoever sings the National Anthem comes to near the end and hits the “Oh,” I will shout with all the Baltimore boosters “O” and when the man in blue yells “Play Ball!,” I will sit back, sip my beer and get ready for another great season.

And, I will get to the Marlins later in the spring.

Monday, February 23, 2009

About This Blog

Who Am I? you can more or less check me out at

Why Am I doing this? partly as an experiment in some of the newer forms of communications. I have been a skeptic about social media, but my concept is that if enough people are talking about it then it must be worth looking into. And, what better way to look into it than to jump right in. There is no sense going to the beach if you don't plan to get wet -- otherwise all you do is sit in the sand and get itchy. Right?

Why baseball? Because a long time ago someone told me write about what you know. I really do not know that much about baseball, but I go to a lot of games, play Strat-0-Matic avidly (if not well) and have the same combination of knowledge + misinformation + unique perspectives as the next guy.

What else? I make a detour from time to time, away from baseball, to some other things I like to think about -- the economy; some of my clients; politics (I am a devoted centrist -- I want Congress to keep their hands out of my pocket and away from a woman's right to control her own internal organs, and I want all the stem cell research that is possible; but I want fiscal responsibility and some sense that there is an exit strategy from the nationalization of American commerce that President Obama has launched. I may comment on whatever else in the news I think is worth commenting on. After all, that is what a blog is for, isn't it.