Room to Disagree

Reasonable people can disagree. (So can unreasonable people, but that tends to get too contentious for daily life. Anyway.)

Not everyone will agree with my assessment of the various proposals being passed back and forth between the MLB Players Association and the league management. But I’m willing to accept the validity of their views, and I’d hope they’ll do likewise in return.

Because, see, I’ve got a few proposals of my own that I think would go a long way to improving baseball. What do you think of these ideas?

    1. Expand the MLBPA to cover the minor leagues. Many of baseball’s problems can be traced to the minors. Currently, there’s no unified voice that can speak for players without major league contracts. As a result, the players are unquestionably underpaid–well below the federal minimum wage–with no ability to negotiate better deals and they have far fewer opportunities to develop themselves off the field. For all its faults, the MLBPA could give them that voice. And, as an added bonus, including minor league players in the collective bargaining agreements would give them a say in the deployment of new rules (i.e. their working conditions), something that’s currently the sole province of the major league owners.
    2. Expand the major leagues. Specifically, add one team each to the AL and NL. That would give sixteen teams in each league, greatly simplifying scheduling and potentially allow a return to the earlier practice of having everyone in interleague play at the same time, something that was popular with the fans; certainly more popular than the current arrangement which has one interleague game every day. For reasons I’ll discuss in the next point, I’d like to see the new teams in Vancouver and Las Vegas (although Portland would be an acceptable alternative).
    3. Realign. Sixteen teams across three divisions isn’t going to work. Better to have four divisions of four teams in each league. In order to maximize the value of geographic rivalries, and better balance the amount each team must travel over the course of the season, I’d suggest that the divisions break from the current time zone orientation and go to the compass points instead:
      AL East NL East
      Baltimore Washington
      Boston Philadelphia
      NY Yankees NY Mets
      Toronto Pittsburgh
      AL West NL West
      Anaheim Los Angeles
      Vancouver (or Portland) Arizona
      Oakland San Francisco
      Seattle San Diego
      AL South NL South
      Texas Atlanta
      Houston Las Vegas
      Kansas City St. Louis
      Miami Tampa
      AL North NL North
      Chicago Sox Chicago Cubs
      Cleveland Cincinnati
      Detroit Colorado
      Minnesota Milwaukee

      Vancouver would not only give a local rival for Seattle, but also a Canadian cross-country rival to the Blue Jays, who’ve had the Land of the Maple Leaf to themselves since the Expos abandoned Montreal. Portland, on the other hand, would mean even less travel for the AL West teams, while still providing the Mariners with local arch-villains. That’s certainly working well in soccer, where Portland and Seattle have one of the league’s great rivalries.

      Las Vegas, of course, is a natural, given their current expansionistic ways in sports. Perhaps they’re a little too far west for maximum convenience in the South–and there are a few other geographical compromises in my proposed alignments–but certainly there’s nothing worse than the current arrangement, which has two Texas teams in the AL West.

    4. Shorten the season. Not much. Just enough to sneak a few more rest days into the calendar. Along with the above expansion and realignment, schedules could break down like this:
      • 13 games against each division rival
      • 5 games against each of the other teams in their league
      • 5 games against each team in the same division of the opposite league (i.e. AL North vs. NL North)
      • 3 games against each of the other other-league teams (home one season, on the road the next so we don’t have one game road trips)

      That would be 155 games, hearkening back to the pre-expansion 154-game season. With proper timing, and perhaps an occasional double-header, that could allow for six or seven more days off scattered throughout the year.

Agree? Disagree? Can we at least be reasonable?

Spring Is About to Spring

Spring isn’t quite here yet, but it’s less than two weeks away.

Oh, sure, the Vernal Equinox isn’t until March 20, but I’m talking about the start of baseball. The real beginning of Spring. And, as far as I’m concerned, that’s the day of the first Spring Training game. Not when players begin reporting–which was Sunday, by the way–because unless you’re in Arizona or Florida you can’t take part, not even electronically. Nobody broadcasts pitchers stretching their arms, position players taking fielding practice, or batters in the cage.

Nor is it when the first official games are played, because that’s the start of Summer. “Boys of Summer,” right? Gotta sneak Spring in there somewhere. It’s particularly bad this year, with the Mariners and As starting the season in Tokyo. That’s at some ridiculous hour the night of March 19 or morning of March 20, depending on your time zone. Okay, it aligns with the astronomical calendar, but so what? This is religion, not science.

Opening Day for everyone else is March 28, by the way. Which means Spring is going to be only thirty-five days long. But what can you do?

Anyway, yeah, Spring starts with a radio-only game between the Mariners and As on February 21. (The first televised game is the next day, also a Mariners/As contest.) Close enough that we should start seeing the prognosticators popping their heads out of their holes and looking for their shadows any day now.

Too early for me to make any predictions. As usual, I’ll hold mine until everyone’s played an official game. But to tide us through these last ten days, how about a survey of the proposed rule changes MLB and the MLB Players Association have blessed us with this year?

Tweaking the size of the roster. Count me as wholeheartedly in favor of this one. Increasing the number of active players from twenty-five to twenty-six will give teams more flexibility in arranging their lineups, and combining it with a twelve-pitcher limit will ensure that there are enough position players to allow for late game substitutions and pinch hitting. Add in the reduction of September rosters from forty to twenty-eight, and you’ve got a recipe for more consistent play. I’m in.

Fewer mound visits. Shrug. Was anyone penalized for too many mound visits last season? I sure don’t remember it happening. The proposal is to drop the limit from six to three by 2020. I don’t see it making much of a difference.

Bringing the pitch clock to the majors. I’m already on the record as being okay with this one. I haven’t seen any ill effects on the game in the minors, where it’s been in use for several years. I gather the current thought for the major league level is to only use the clock when the bases are empty, which would certainly reduce its impact–no hurried pitches going wild and allowing a runner to score from third. Nothing here compels me to change my position.

Changing the draft to discourage tanking. Um. No. Does anyone really think the Orioles intentionally lost 115 games last year to improve their draft position? Maybe there was some jockeying for the second and third picks. Maybe. But penalizing teams for losing seems more likely to hurt unlucky or injury-prone teams than to discourage teams from punting a couple of games.

The three-batter minimum. Nope, not this one either. All it takes is a glance at football to see why this is a bad idea. Remember when football had a thirty-second injury timeout? There’s a reason the “injury” part got dropped. Why force players to fake an injury to get out of the game? Besides, limiting the number of pitchers should cut down on late game pitching changes, especially with the increase in the use of “openers”. This one feels too much like fiddling for the sake of fiddling.

A complete ban on trades after the All-Star Break. Oh, hell no! Sure, it can be frustrating when your favorite player is traded on July 31, bringing a measly return of minor league players and forcing you to give up on the playoffs. But blocking the trade isn’t going to make your team any better–they’ve already lost enough games that management has given up on the season. The idea goes against roster flexibility and might even encourage tanking. Send this idea to sleep with the fishies.

Lowering or moving the pitching mound. Lower it? Sure. Wouldn’t be the first time, and if it does increase offense, it’ll make games that much more exciting for the casual fan. I wouldn’t want to see the mound eliminated entirely–Walter Johnson, anybody?–but shave it down from ten inches to seven or eight? Not gonna bother me a bit. On the other hand, I’m firmly against moving the mound further away from the plate. Not only would it invalidate 125 years of pitching records, but it would force pitchers to throw harder, risking more arm injuries. And it would mess with hitters’ timing, something they’ve spent their entire lives tuning. My gut says moving the mound back would be more likely to decrease offense than increase it, at least for the first decade or so while we wait for players who’ve played the game since high school with the mound at the new distance. Not to mention that moving the mound would leave the US out of sync with the rest of the world, who are unlikely to want to tamper with that bit of tradition just because MLB has.

Introduce the DH to the NL. I like having the DH limited to the American League. I think it’s good to shake up coaches and players by forcing them to make a strategic change for interleague games. But if this proposal goes through, I won’t cry. Be honest here, National League fans: once you get past “because it’s always been done this way,” the argument against the designated hitter boils down to a love of the “NL style” with its emphasis on bunts and sacrifices. Yes, but. The ninth batter is still (usually) going to be the weakest hitter in the lineup. Nothing says you can’t make him bunt or hit for the sacrifice, just like you do with the pitcher today. Heck, under the AL’s current rules, you can forgo the DH and let the pitcher hit. I’ve even seen it suggested that you could declare the pitcher to be the DH, thus letting him hit for himself and potentially stay in the game to hit when you bring in a reliever. I’m not certain that’s a legitimate interpretation of the rule, but I’d love to see it happen. That said, NL teams generally switch to an AL-style offense when playing in AL parks, which suggests that sacrificing and bunting aren’t winning strategies. Why would you want to see your team playing to lose? (Are we back to the tanking discussion again?)

It doesn’t look like any of these changes are going to be introduced this season. But, as the saying goes, just wait until next year!

HOF 2019

The Baseball Hall of Fame voters continue to perplex me.

This year, there were five candidates receiving what I can only assume were sympathy votes. As usual, no offense to the gents in question, but Lance Berkman? Roy Oswalt? And I hope neither of the voters who named Placido Polanco seriously thought he’d make the cut.

That’s not the perplexing part of the ballot, though. There are always a few of those votes.

Nor is the election of Edgar Martinez perplexing. As we’ve said before, the only peculiar thing about that result is how long it took. Congratulations, ‘Gar. Well deserved!

Nor are the changes in the votes received by the PED Players unexpected. Barry Bonds got a small jump from 56.4% to 59.1%. Roger Clemens climbed from 57.3% to 59.5%.

And, if we needed proof that assholery is less offensive to baseball writers than PED use, Curt Schilling got the big bounce-back I expected last year, jumping from 51.2% all the way up to 60.9%. That’s still well short of the 75% necessary for election, but let’s not forget that two years ago, Edgar was two points lower than Schilling is this year. Last year I said “Vote on his performance, guys.” It appears the voters did exactly that. Will he make the grade in his last three years of eligibility? Stay tuned.

Other non-surprises: Mike Mussina, Roy Halladay, and Mariano Rivera were all elected.

So what has me perplexed?

Let me put it this way. Back in 2016, Ken Griffey Jr. scored 99.3% of the votes–the highest percentage ever recorded–and it was generally agreed that if Junior (arguably the greatest player in the history of the game) couldn’t get elected unanimously, nobody ever would.

So how the [expletive deleted] did Mariano Rivera pull it off? I don’t doubt he’s hall-worthy. But unanimously hall-worthy?

I doubt anybody would call him the greatest player in the history of the game. I’m certainly not. Greatest pitcher? Nah. There’s a case, but no. Greatest reliever? Sure, I’d go that far.

But I don’t see how that’s enough to get him a unanimous election.

I know, I know. The vote isn’t over who’s the greatest, just who’s hall-worthy. But again, how is Rivera that much more obviously worthy than Griffey?

I hesitate to suggest bias, but we shouldn’t ignore the fact that Junior’s glory years were played in Seattle–out there in the boonies–while The Sandman played for the Yankees. The New York Yankees. I’ll say no more. Just think about it.

And, those of us who remember Junior in his prime can console ourselves with the thought that he got twelve more votes than Mariano. It’s a tiny fire to warm ourselves with, but it’ll do.

Stay tuned for next year, when the pool will include such worthies and potential worthies as Derek Jeter, Jason Giambi, Paul Konerko, J.J. Putz, and Raul Ibanez.

Oh, and my leading candidate to rock the sympathy vote tally, Chone Figgins.

Sitting One Out

What’s the opposite of “going for it?” There’s “tanking,” but that has implications of “we tried, but failed, so we’re going all in on failure” combined with “we’re outright trying to suck.” I’m looking for the phrase that describes “we’re not even going to try to be good, but if it happens anyway, we’ll take it.”

Whatever you call it, this year’s poster child is the Seattle Mariners. Which is a new experience for Mariners fans. For decades, the team was somewhere between “bad” and “adequate.” For a brief period between 1995 and 2003, they swung wildly between “ouch” and “pretty damn good*.” Since then, they’ve hovered around “adequate” with occasional jumps and dips. Which isn’t to say some of those dips haven’t been spectacular. Mariners fans try to forget 2008 and 2010, when the team went 61-101, clearly in the “horrible” range.

* 2001, of course, was an outlier at “amazing.”

The mantra since 2003 has been “we’re one good X away,” where X has variously been a big bat, a Number Two pitcher, and a general manager.

The 2018 season was the Ms’ best since 2003 and their sixth best since they were founded. (My usual reaction to hearing stats like that is “when was their worst season?” For those of you who enjoy train wrecks, the answer is 1978, their second season, when they went 56-104.)

Despite the glittering–by Mariners’ standards–record, they missed the playoffs for the seventeenth time in a row. Apparently, the front office has finally gotten the message that the team isn’t “just one” anything away from anywhere you’d want to be.

It’s only December, and they’ve already traded away every player with name-brand recognition outside of the Pacific Northwest*. Granted, the correlation between recognition and talent is loose, but it’s a convenient indicator. Correction: they didn’t trade Nelson Cruz, they let him go to free agency.

* Okay, yes, they still have Kyle Seager. But if you ask anyone outside the Ms’ viewing area about “Seager,” they’ll think you’re talking about his younger brother, down in LA. And the Mariners are listening to offers for Kyle.

Some of their activity has been collecting young talent, not yet ready for the majors. Some of it has been dumping salary. None of it is explicit tanking, but the front office has said that they don’t expect to compete in 2019. Whether 2020 or 2021 is the realistic target to go for it again is arguable, and can’t realistically be settled until we see how many more trades the Ms make between now and July 31.

We also can’t tell yet whether 2019 is going to be a 1999-like “meh” or a 1980-ish “OMG, hide your eyes!” So much of the talent the Mariners have picked up so far is clearly not ready for the majors, that I suspect their Opening Day starting lineup is going to look a heck of a lot like the Tacoma Rainiers’ lineup this past October.

Some of you may wonder if I’m going to be watching. And the answer is a qualified yes.

I’m increasingly disenchanted by MLB’s streaming offering, and I may yet cancel my subscription. There’s the whole fiasco around giving games to Facebook, which is outrageous–this past year, games on Facebook couldn’t even be broadcast on local television. Way to kick existing fans–to say nothing of the younger fans and potential fans you want to court–in the face.

There’s MLB’s lack of interest in offering MLB.TV subscribers any support. Last year they took down their online message board, eliminating a major venue for fans to help each other. And their individual support is horrid. I sent them a note about a bug in the Android app and got an email back explaining how to delete the app. The bug never did get fixed.

Post-season games are blacked out of MLB.TV unless you have a cable or satellite subscription. Cut the cord? Forget about MLB.TV for the playoffs. No streaming provider has been approved by MLB, not even the ones owned by an approved provider. If your streamer doesn’t have the channel the game is on (MLB Network, anybody?), you’re SOL.

MLB.TV subscriptions renew on March 1. Last year, the announcement about Facebook exclusive broadcasts didn’t come out until March 9, four days after the deadline to cancel a subscription and get a refund. I fully expect the same thing to happen this year, so if you prefer not to pay for games you’ll be prevented from watching, cancel your auto-renew now.

So I may not bother with MLB.TV this year. I’ll miss watching the Mets and Orioles, but at least I have options for the Ms–or at least the games MLB grudgingly allows to be aired.

Winter Is Still Coming

And so another MLB season comes to its end.

But before we look ahead to the long, dark, cold winter* that lies ahead, let’s look back. All the way back to April, when I made my annual playoff predictions.

* Disclaimer: Thanks to climate change and your local geography and climatology, some or all of those characteristics may not apply.

What with one thing and another, last year’s review got rather shorted. This year, I aim to do better.

Let’s start with the first set of predictions: the teams that I expected to make the playoffs. My overall average for the years I’ve been making predictions is right around 50%. That’s actually pretty good, considering that random chance would put the odds for any one pick around 33%. Did I improve my average this year?

Well, in the American League, I picked the Yankees, White Sox, Astros, Rays, and Athletics. The correct teams: Yankees, Indians, Astros, Red Sox, and Athletics. Three out of five! Note that, had I gone with differently colored socks, my feet would have been just as warm, and I’d have made four out of five.

As for the senior circuit, I called out the Mets, Cubs, Diamondbacks, Braves, and Pirates. Reality offered up the Braves, Brewers, Dodgers, Cubs, and Rockies. Um. Two out of five.

Hitting .500 would be a fabulous job on the diamond. Record setting, in fact. Out in Prognostication Land, it’s not so hot. Better than chance, but it’s not going to do much for my position when it comes time to negotiate my contract for next season. On the bright side, my record this year didn’t ruin my lifetime average.

As for my playoff prediction, well…

Let’s not wallow in depressing matters. I picked the Astros over the Braves in seven games. The actual World Series teams were…wait for it…the Red Sox and Dodgers, two teams I completely failed to pick to make the playoffs.

Nor did it go to seven games. A bare five–though we could make a case for six, since we did get nine extra innings in Game Three. Still not seven, though.

And no, onward. Winter is coming. Anyone got any great new ideas for how to fill the baseball-free void which lies ahead?

Playoffs

Your team didn’t make the MLB playoffs? Sorry to hear it. But we all know watching the playoffs is more fun when you’ve got a rooting interest. As always, I’m here to help.

(Those of you who are fans of playoff teams can come back Thursday.)

This isn’t about picking a winner. I did that back in April–to save you the trouble of re-reading that post, my prediction is Astros over Braves in seven high-scoring games. (Fortunately for my pride, both teams did, in fact, make the playoffs.) Come November, we’ll take a look at how well all my predictions turned out.

If you’re new to this blog, you may be surprised to hear there are rules for choosing a rooting interest. But why should something so important be left to whim and chance? We’ve been tweaking the rules for the past few years; for the first time in blog history, they haven’t changed.

Rules for Rooting, 2018 edition

  1. Unless it’s the team you follow during the regular season, you must not root for any team that has been promoted as “America’s Team” or otherwise held up by its owners and/or the media as the ultimate expression of the sport.
  2. You should not root for a team from your own team’s division.
  3. That said, you should root for somebody from your own league. Crossing the league boundary without a really good excuse is in bad taste.
  4. Possession of team merchandise with sentimental value OR a history of following a favorite player from team to team trumps Rules Two and Three. It does not override Rule One. Nothing overrides Rule One.
  5. Teams with a record of recent futility or legitimate “misfit” credentials get bonus points in the decision process. A record of futility means multiple losing seasons or a lengthy stretch without a playoff appearance and/or title. What constitutes legitimate misfittery is up to you. Be honest with yourself.
  6. All other rules notwithstanding, you are always free to root for the Indians, holders of a sixty-eight season World Series drought.

Yes, the Indians did make the playoffs this year. But let’s do this in an organized fashion.

Since the Astros won it all last year, we’ll give the AL home field advantage and make the NL bat first.

The National League playoff teams are Atlanta, Milwaukee, Colorado, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

Rule One clearly applies to the Braves (blame Ted Turner). And as far as I’m concerned, no Vin Scully retirement and no assault on the MLB record for wins in a season means no Rule One exemption for the Dodgers.

We’ll award a futility point to the Rockies, who’ve never won a World Series in their twenty-five year history, and two to the Brewers, who have been around for forty-nine years and are still looking for their first title.

Braves and Dodgers fans, you go do you. For those of us who don’t follow overly-aggrandized teams, it looks like this: if you normally root for an NL East team other than Atlanta, you should pull for Milwaukee. If you usually follow the Cardinals, Pirates, or Reds, cheer for the Rockies. And if you’re normally a Diamondback, Giant, or Padre booster, show your October love for the Brewers.

Now, on to the American League, where the playoff teams are Boston, Cleveland, Houston, New York, and Oakland.

We can eliminate the Yankees via Rule One and, given how ESPN is slipping back into their old habit of glorifying the Boston/New York rivalry, I’m invoking Rule One on the Red Sox as well.

As noted above, the Indians get multiple futility points. The Athletics deserve a point as well, not having won a World Series since the infamous 1989 cross-bay affair. If you want to award the As a misfit point as well, based on their reputation as a bunch of unknowns and lunatics who’ve managed to piece together a winning season, I won’t argue with you. Hell, I’ll give Oakland the point just for having Khris Davis–the only man in history to hit exactly .247 four consecutive years–on the team!

Yankees and Red Sox boosters, go join the fans of the Braves and Dodgers in your media-created hell. Currently-unaligned AL fans, your teams are as follows: Central Division dwellers, you get Oakland, and those of us out west (or southwest–I’m not forgetting you Rangers’ fans) will take the Cleveland. Rays, Blue Jays, and Orioles fans can take your pick and go for either Cleveland on their record of futility or Oakland for futility plus misfittery.

And, as always, if you don’t normally follow baseball–whether because you’ve lost the True Faith or never been properly entered in the rolls of the Faithful–you can exercise your free will. If you choose a team based on proximity or sentimental reasons, follow the guidelines above. Or take the easy way out and root for the Indians.

Do not–I repeat, not root for the Astros just because I’ve told you they’re going to win. The Baseball Gods do not favor bandwagonism. And besides, there’s a chance my prediction might be wrong. That’s why they play the games and why we cheer.

And me, I’ll be in front of the TV Friday night when my-for-the-moment Cleveland Indians take on the temporarily-hated Houston Astros.

Which is not to say I won’t be watching any of the five games before then, because I will. Following the rules, of course. That means I’ll be rooting for the Rockies in the NL Wild Card tonight, the Athletics in the AL Wild Card tomorrow–much as it pains me to root for a division rival to my Mariners, nothing trumps Rule One.

Thursday is trickier. It’s easy enough to root for the Brewers over either the Rockies or the Cubs, but what about the late game? Both the Braves and the Dodgers are subject to Rule One, and mutual destruction isn’t an option. Coin flips are so arbitrary. I may have to play the underdog card and root for whoever is losing at any given moment.

Now What?

More thoughts as we approach the end of MLB’s regular season.

There isn’t a whole lot of doubt left about who’s going to the playoffs this year. With just under two weeks remaining, only two teams in the AL have any chance of making the playoffs (Tampa Bay and Seattle), and it would take an epic collapse by Oakland for one of them to get in. Over in the NL, five teams still have a mathematical possibility of snagging a Wild Card slot, but only one–Colorado–has a realistic shot.

Colorado also has a legitimate shot at winning their division, and if they do, LA and St. Louis will be fighting over the second Wild Card.

So there’s still a bit of excitement left in the playoff race, but the odds are good the ten teams will be settled before the end of the season.

So what do you do when there’s no playoff drama and no chance your team will make it in?

You could ask Jackie. After all, her Orioles are going to lose somewhere between 108 and 118 games this year*. She made the front page of The Baltimore Sun with her explanation of how to survive your team’s worst season ever.

* While it may feel like the Os were eliminated before the All-Star Break, they actually still had a mathematical shot at the playoffs until August 20, one month ago today. Which says a lot about how little difference there is between a champion and a, uh, not-champion in MLB.

While Jackie gives good advice–it’s about acceptance, giving up attachments, and keeping a sense of humor–she doesn’t offer much guidance in what to do while your team plays out their thread.

My prescription is to pick some potentially attainable goals and cheer for those.

Baltimore has already attained their most obvious alternate goal. They can’t possibly set an MLB record for losses. Even if they lose all their remaining games, the 1962 Mets’ 120 loss record will stand.

So, how about a positive goal? Fifty wins is meaningless, but it’s a nice, round number, and they can reach it by winning six of their final ten.

Or there are personal goals. Offensively-oriented fans can cheer for Nelson Cruz’ pursuit of forty home runs. He came up one short last year, but with ten games left, he only needs four more to do it this year. Meanwhile, J.D. Martinez of the Red Sox is looking to be the first Triple Crown winner since 2012*. He’s currently leading the AL in RBIs and sitting in second for home runs and batting average.

* The Triple Crown is a difficult feat. It’s only been won sixteen or seventeen times (there’s some doubt about stats prior to 1920 or so). Before Miguel Cabrera did it in 2012, you’d have to go all the way back to Carl Yastrzemski in 1967.

Meanwhile, fans of pitching can watch the Mariners’ Edwin Díaz chase the all-time saves record. That’s about as likely as the Orioles reaching fifty wins, as he’d need seven in the Ms’ last ten games, which would imply Seattle can win seven of ten from the As and Rangers.

Really stats-minded sorts might keep an eye on the fielding stats. As of this writing, twenty-seven players have had error-free seasons. As best I can tell, that would be the most perfect fielders in a season since 2008. Okay, okay, nobody cares about that, except for the folks at Rawlings, who give the Golden Glove award to the best fielders at each position. But I needed something to look for on defence.

Anyway, for the next two weeks, I recommend choosing small, attainable goals. Once we hit the playoffs, we’ll have about a month to soak up all the baseball we can to tide us over to next year.

Not On Our Side

Not exactly the way the Mariners wanted to come out of the All-Star Break. Two and one against the White Sox, owners of the third-worst record in baseball. Splitting a two-game series with the Giants, who are struggling to stay at .500. Losing two of three to the Angels, the fourth place team in the Mariners’ own division.

Still, it’s better than the eight games going into the Break, when they went two and six.

And there are signs of hope. The seven run first inning against the Angels Sunday. Last night’s low-scoring, but ultimately victorious match with the Astros. For that matter, the Astros’ four straight losses going into that game and the Athletics’ dropping three in a row to the Rockies didn’t exactly hurt the Ms.

Going five and four and winding up two games closer to the division lead is unusual, but who–outside of Houston and Oakland–is complaining?

The Orioles, by the way, have gone four and five with one rainout over the same stretch. That’s also not exactly world-beating, and they’re still five and half behind those pesky White Sox, but they’re riding a three-game win streak coming into their series with the Yankees. Go Birds!

But I digress.

The Mariners have made a few moves ahead of the Trade Deadline–which we all know is more of a Trade Mild Headache Line. Like their recent record, there’s nothing spectacular there, but nothing horrifying either. Bolstering the bullpen is a reasonable move. A (usually) safe move.

But as I’ve said before, defense doesn’t win ballgames. It can keep you from losing games, but winning requires offense. Just ask Felix. Or, better yet, ask Harvey Haddix, who pitched a perfect game for twelve innings back in 1959 and wound up losing the game 1-0.

Maybe the Ms will do something to bolster the offense today. A trade. A promotion from the minors. A new locker-room ritual. Something.

But this is the Mariners. The gang that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2001. Loyal fans have come to expect something to go wrong. Or, more likely, a whole mess of things to go wrong.

Come on guys, make a break with history. Let’s get it right this year.

Late Midway

Here we are at the middle of the season.

Yeah, yeah, I know. Most teams are past the ninety-five game mark and several are at ninety-eight–60% of the season. But the All-Star Break is still the traditional mid-point, even though–thanks to this year’s schedule changes–it’s never been later.

And we all know how important tradition is to baseball. (One assumes that Tevye and the rest of the gang fleeing Anatevka became rabid fans when they reached the U.S. Though they probably would have rooted for the Trolley Dodgers, so there’s that. But I digress.)

Jackie’s Orioles, while not exactly covering themselves with glory, at least made it to the break on a two-game winning streak, giving them 28 victories on the season and putting them percentage points ahead of the Royals in the race to avoid the “Worst Team in Baseball Dunce Cap” (not a real award).

The Giants (hi, John!), despite dropping their last two games to the Athletics, are still two games over .500 and have a legitimate chance to challenge for the NL West crown and a playoff spot.

And, of course, the Mariners, flying high as recently as two weeks ago, have lately put on a performance that makes the Orioles look stellar. They’ve lost four straight and seven of the last ten. That they’re still sitting in the second Wild Card slot says a lot more about the way the rest of the American League started the season than it does about the Ms themselves.

Vexingly, they’re not in the Machado sweepstakes. They’ve got a pretty darn good shortstop already, and their third baseman isn’t exactly shabby either. So, while Manny’s bat might be just what they need to kickstart the offense again, they don’t have anywhere to put him. (As I write this, it appears he’ll be going to the aforementioned Trolley Dodgers. Feh!)

Anyway, the All-Star Break means the Home Run Derby. You know I love me some Derby, even though it’s not really baseball. (If preseason baseball is methadone, what does that make the All-Star Game and the Home Run Derby? Nicotine gum, maybe?)

This year’s HRD may have been the best I’ve seen. Certainly the best since I started blogging. No gross mismatches, a couple of dramatic comebacks, an exciting final round, and a complete lack of distracting charity gimmicks. (The key word there is “distracting”. T-Mobile is donating money to Team Rubicon based partly on the number of home runs hit during the Derby. Good for them. And doubly so for not hitting viewers over the head with their message as has been the case with previous charitable donation promotions.)

I could have done with a bit less Bryce Harper adulation during the event. Yes, I know: local player, heavily favored, plays well to the camera. But the frequent cuts to his latest mugging felt contrived. But it’s a minor complaint, all things considered.

The youthful ball-shaggers were good. I saw a couple of nice catches and only one incident that put me in fear for a kid’s health. And it was great to see them get some on-screen recognition as Pitch, Hit & Run winners. Nobody robbed a competitor of a home run as famously happened to Ryne Sandberg in 1985, but I did see a clean snag just short of the wall.

More nicotine gum tonight with the All-Star Game, then two days of withdrawal before real games resume. (Yeah, okay, there’s a Cardinals/Cubs game on Thursday to help tide us over to Friday, but outside of St. Louis, it’s not a big deal. Certainly unlikely to have significant playoff repercussions.)

Back to the Basics

First, a belated apology to Jackie on behalf of the Mariners, who swept her beloved Orioles in a four game series at the end of June. I know she was disappointed, but in the Ms’ defense, they needed the victories a lot more than the Os did.

Which isn’t much of an apology, I realize. But it’s sure in line with baseball tradition, where the “apology” for nailing a batter in the ribs with a fastball is often, “He deserved it.”

But I digress slightly. Despite a recent absence of hitting–especially with runners in scoring position–the Mariners are still 23 games over .500, only three games out of first in their division, and holding a solid (if hardly impregnable) six game lead over Oakland in the Wild Card race. They’re on pace to win 101 games, which is pretty good for a team few expected to win 90.

So, sorry Jackie–but would you please ask your guys to beat the Yankees a few more times this year? Thanks, much obliged.

Moving on.

We went to our annual minor league game last week. The last couple of years we went to Sacramento for a AAA game, but this year the schedule worked out better to go back to our previous stomping grounds, San Jose.

The San Jose Giants are a Class A Advanced league team. The quality of play is not, to put it politely, at anything close to a major league level. The odds say that the majority of the players we saw will never get more than a cup of coffee, if that much.

But.

We had good seats–not that any of the seats in a 4,000 seat facility are bad.
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And when you sit that close to the action, you really get a sense of how good that so-called bad play is in reality. When someone hits that proverbial screaming line drive, you can hear it scream. And when it knocks the third baseman on his ass, you understand why he didn’t catch it in a very visceral way. One you’ll never get watching, say Nolan Arenado, from the third deck of a 50,000 seat park.

Which is not to say you forgive that third baseman, of course.

Still, A-class baseball is an entertaining way to spend an afternoon or evening, and it’s a damn sight cheaper than the majors.

But be aware that Municipal Stadium does have its quirks. Many parks are afflicted with seagulls that descend on the field after the game, sometimes not waiting for the final out before they come shrieking in, chasing errant french fries. Municipal Stadium has a similar problem.
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It’s a self-inflicted problem, of course. What you’re seeing there is the clean-up after a regular promotion. During the game, fans can buy a bag of numbered tennis balls, which they get to throw at targets set up on the field. Get a ball into a bucket or plastic ring and win a prize: leftover bobbleheads from earlier promotions, for example. Though, to be fair, the day we were there, three people won tickets to a San Francisco Giants game. That attempt at balance isn’t quite fair, though: big winners aren’t all that common, and three winners at one game was an all-time record.

We had a good time–and that’s without figuring in the post-game fireworks show. It was short and didn’t have many large, spectacular blooms, but the launch point in center field, less than 100 yards away, and the heavy emphasis on rapid-fire curtains and streams of sparks more than made up for the limitations.

Moving on.

If we believe the commissioner, the biggest problem facing professional baseball right now is pace of play. Based on the game in San Jose, I think he’s got the wrong end of the rope. It’s not really about speeding up the game. That’s just one approach to the real problem: keeping fans actively involved and interested.

Maybe we don’t really need pitch clocks or electronic umpires*. Maybe what we need is something a bit different.

* We don’t. Nobody who’s seen the home crowd react to their cleanup hitter strike out looking at a pitch three feet outside would ever say getting balls and strikes right is the best way to keep fans involved in the game.

Hey, Commissioner Manfred, how about reintroducing the beer batter at the major league level?

For the uninitiated, one player on the visiting team is designated the “beer batter”. If he strikes out, beer is half-priced for a period of time, typically fifteen minutes or for the next half-inning. And, boy howdy, do the spectators cheer when the beer batter swings and misses.

Sure, there are issue to be worked out. Nobody’s going to want to sell those $12 craft beers for $6. But the mass-market beers shouldn’t be a problem, especially if you limit sales to a subset of the concession stands. And most, if not all, parks halt beer sales after the seventh inning, and half-priced soda isn’t going to satisfy anyone when the beer batter comes up in the eighth or ninth. Maybe a deal on beer-battered corn dogs?

But the beer batter is only an example. Give the fans a specific thing to root for that has a direct payout to them, and they’ll engage. Case in point: if an Oakland player hits a home run, everyone in a single section of seats gets a free pizza. But fans can’t cheer for that. Homers can happen at any time, and the section isn’t announced until after the hit. How about changing it up a bit: if the ninth batter hits a home run, everyone gets pizza?

You’ll have fans screaming for guys with a lifetime .200 average to swing for the fences, and crying in mass agony when his fly ball dies on the warning track–and if he bunts, well…!

Sure, it might be a little pricey for the Giants when MadBum is pitching, but that’s what corporate sponsors are for, right?

Call it unenlightened self-interest. It’s not as obnoxious as the increasingly ridiculous between-innings antics most parks have turned to, and it’ll work just as well to keep fans in the stadium.

And it’s certainly more true to baseball tradition than putting free runners on base in extra innings.