Confusion To the Enemy

For the past several days, the sports section of the Chron has been full of articles about a pending game between the Giants and the 49ers. This has engendered a certain amount of confusion.

Clarification for those of you who don’t do sportsball of any sort: San Francisco’s football team is the 49ers. San Francisco’s baseball team is the Giants. Some little town on the East Coast also has a football team named the Giants.

I have to wonder, though, who would come out on top in a game between the two San Francisco teams. The 49ers are rather woeful this season. Maybe they’d be better in a sport where the opponent isn’t allowed to leap on the guy with the ball. On the other hand, the SF Giants were rather woeful themselves. I’d suggest they try another sport as well, but given their injury-prone ways, offering them a free concussion with every play seems unnecessarily cruel.

(For the record, the NY Giants aren’t looking so hot either. But they did manage to be just a little bit better than the 49ers and improve their record to 2-7.)

Anyway, it’s fortunate for my ability to track events of national importance that there aren’t many of this sort of cross-sport name collision. The Cardinals play football in Arizona and baseball in St. Louis, which must make for some interesting scheduling in September and October. That’s about it for active conflicts, though.

Historically, the Washington Senators switched from baseball to hockey when they moved to Ottawa. A complete change of, well, everything, was probably a wise decision, given that it took them two decades to move, leaving D.C. in 1972 and not settling in Canada until 1992. Moving sucks, but that’s no reason to stretch out the process interminably*.

* Hint, hint, Oakland/Las Vegas Raiders.

There’s surprisingly little confusion between baseball’s Kansas City Royals and basketball’s Sacramento Kings. That may owe more to the latter team’s ongoing irrelevance–they haven’t made the playoffs since the 2005/06 season, haven’t made it past the first round since 2003/04, and haven’t won a championship since 1950/51.

The real winner in the confusion game, though, has to be the thinly-disguised triple-sport team. They play basketball in Atlanta as the “Hawks,” hockey as the “Blackhawks” in Chicago, and football in Seattle as the “Seahawks”. And yes, it does engender a little confusion when headline writers refer to the later two as the “‘Hawks”. It’s easy to overlook that leading apostrophe.

That Was Rare

I went to a baseball game and history broke out.

Yeah, OK, it wasn’t history in the sense that nothing like that had ever happened before, but it was still a rare event.

Let me start at the beginning. Around the middle of last month, I realized it was almost the middle of the baseball season, and I hadn’t been to a single game. Clearly this was a situation that couldn’t be permitted to continue. That was Saturday. Sunday, I got a ticket for an upcoming Giants/Padres game. Monday, Tony Gwynn died.

“Who?” I hear the irreligious among you say. Tony Gwynn was one of the greatest hitters in the history of baseball. Not a homerun hitter, by any means, but his Padres could always count on him for a timely single: three-quarters (2,378 of 3,141) of his hits were singles. He spent his entire major league career with the Padres, and became the face of the franchise to an extent unmatched by any other player in any sport. OK, maybe there’s a case for Michael Jordan as the face of the Chicago Bulls, but in my opinion, Jordan’s association with the Washington and Charlotte teams drops him behind Gwynn, who followed his playing career with time as a coach for the Padres, and remained actively engaged with the team until his death.

Obviously, my ticket purchase killed him. OK, maybe not. Maybe it was the young boy sitting behind me, attending his first baseball game. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Padres were in Seattle that Monday, and the Mariners joined the Padres in paying tribute to Mr. Gwynn before the game–and then beat them 5-1. It’s been that kind of year for the Padres. The Giants also had a ceremony honoring him before the first game of their series with the Padres–and then lost 6-0. It’s been that kind of a month for the Giants.

That brings us to the Wednesday game, the one I attended. The Giants had one of the best starts to the season, before hitting a rough patch in June. Mind you, before the game on the twenty-fifth, they were 45-32, the third best record in baseball.

Pitching for the Giants: Tim Lincecum, who’s been extremely inconsistent for the past few years. When he’s been on, he’s been great. When he’s been off, well, let’s not go there.

I got there early, as I’m wont to do, and enjoyed the experience. A family of four was sitting behind me. From the conversation, it seemed that Mom was a Giants fan; the older boy, perhaps ten or eleven, was a Pablo Sandoval fan; the younger boy, maybe eight and attending his first game, was a rabid Lincecum fan; and Dad, the agnostic, didn’t care much for baseball, but was enjoying the opportunity to play hookey from work and hang out with the kids.

In the first inning, it was clear that Lincecum was on. He struck out the first two Padres and got the third on a ground ball to short. The second inning was almost as clean: a ground out, a walk, a strikeout, and another ground out. As the Giants left the field after the second inning, the younger boy behind me said “Dad, I’d love it if Lincecum threw a no-hitter.” Nosy sort that I am, I turned around and said “You know who else would love it if he threw a no-hitter? Lincecum.” Both the kid and his father agreed that made sense.

Halfway through the third inning, a couple showed up, taking the empty seats to my left. They were clearly fans, but definitely of the casual variety. They were more interested in their sandwiches than the game, and more interested in heckling the Padres’ left fielder, Carlos Quentin* than the game as a whole.

* No hits in three at-bats, and a pair of arguably misplayed fly balls early in the game. ‘Arguably,’ meaning the couple next to me thought they were misplayed; I didn’t.

After eight innings, Lincecum still hadn’t given up a hit–or any more walks–while racking up a pair of hits of his own. (For the record, pitchers are typically lousy hitters, and Lincecum is more than typical. This wasn’t his first multi-hit game–he had two last season–but a comparison to hen’s teeth isn’t completely out of line.

Top of the ninth. Giants take the field. Lincecum starts throwing his warmup pitches. The crowd is cheering thunderously. The late-arriving couple next to me leaves. Heresy, indeed. I would have organized their burning at the stake, but wasn’t about to abandon the game to do it.

It took 16 pitches for Lincecum to wrap up the game (strikeout, ground out to the pitcher, ground out to second base). A no-hitter.

No-hitters are far from the rarest accomplishments in baseball. There have been 243 since 1900; by comparison, there have been 21 perfect games and 15 unassisted triple plays in the same time span. It’s still an impressive accomplishment, requiring not only the pitcher but the entire team to be playing near the peak of their ability. Lincecum’s was notable because it was the second one of his career. Only 26 other pitchers have thrown multiple no-hitters. Even rarer: both of Lincecum’s no-hitters have come against the Padres. Only one other pitcher has thrown two no-hitters against the same team: Addie Joss no-hit Chicago in 1908 and again in 1910.

Joss’ feat is more impressive than Lincecum’s in one respect, however: the 1908 no-hitter was a perfect game. I suppose that means Lincecum still has something to work towards. He’s pitching against the Reds tonight. A perfect game today would certainly push him into the upper ranks of pitching celebrity. Still, history suggests the game we should really be watching is his next start against the Padres. That’s Sunday in San Diego. Stay tuned!

Time Goes By So Fast

Here we are, roughly a quarter of the way through the season. (It’s hard to target the actual quarter point. Scheduling oddities, weather delays, and games scheduled across a ten hour range and four timezones mean that the only time all teams have completed the same number of games are before the season starts and after it ends. Note that a quarter of the schedule would actually 40.5 games, so if we were going for absolute precision, we would have to hit halfway through every team’s forty-first game. So not going to happen.)

As I write this, before any games have started on Tuesday, the Tigers have played 40 games and the White Sox and Diamondbacks have played 46. Everyone else is somewhere between those extremes, so we’re about as close as we’re going to get.

This is the point in the season where the official litany changes from “It’s still early!” to “There’s Plenty of Baseball Left!” For the teams struggling to stay conscious, TPoBL means “We can still turn it around,” while for the current front-runners, it’s more of a cautionary reminder: no division or wild card lead is safe at this point, even Detroit’s current 7 game lead. You might think that’s intuitively obvious, but to many fans, that doesn’t seem to be the case. The old mutual fund disclaimer* applies in spades. Just ask the Giants’ fans. Last year at this point in the schedule, the Giants were 25-20, one game behind the Diamondbacks, and visions of a third World Series in four years were playing the part of sugarplums in the fans’ dreams. At the end of the year, their record was 76-86, 16 games behind the division-winning (and much-hated) Dodgers. That’s why they play 162 games. Broadcasters are overly-fond of reminding us, the season is not a sprint. Annoying as the constant refrain may be, it’s certainly the truth. Anything can happen in a stretch that long.

* Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

The Giants, by the way, are currently 28-17, leading their division by three games. Fans, eager to grasp straws are pointing out that their World Series victories came in 2010 and 2012. “Surely,” they cry “the pattern is clear: even-numbered years are our years to shine!”

What else is going on? Well, let’s see. Last year’s playoff darling Pittsburgh Pirates are currently 18-25, hoping to climb back into relevance by the All Star Break and then make a late run at the division.

The Mariners have put together a baffling combination of stellar victories and hideous losses and currently sit one game under .500–exactly where most pre-season forecasts pegged them. This, I might add (in a totally non-partisan fashion, of course) with the majority of their expected starting pitchers beginning the season on the disabled list. In their case, TPoBL means “If we can stay close to .500 until they’re all back, we could do something amazing.” Kindly bystanders will refrain from pointing out that it really doesn’t matter who’s pitching if your batters go 1 for 30 or so with runners in scoring position…

Like the Mariners, the Orioles have been playing yo-yo games with their record. In their case, though, they’re currently two games over .500 and only half a game behind everyone’s favorite team to hate, the Yankees. TPoBL, to them means “Keep it up, see who we can pick up at the All Star Break, and watch the magic happen.”

Side note: If the playoffs started today, the AL would be represented by the Yankees, Tigers, As, Angels, and Orioles. The NL would have the Braves, Brewers*, Giants, Rockies and either the Cardinals or Nationals. That’s three, maybe four (depending on the results of the Cards/Nats elimination game), of last year’s playoff teams.

* This season’s feel-good team, the role held by the Pirates last year? Milwaukee has but a single World Series appearance. That was in 1982, and they lost in seven games to the Cardinals. But don’t anoint them just yet: The Nationals joined the league in 1969 (as the Montreal Expos) and have never been to the World Series. Washington’s last World Series was in 1933, when the then Washington Senators lost to the then New York Giants. Kinda sounds like the Nationals should be the feel-good team, right? Maybe. In 1961, the Senators moved to Minneapolis and became the Twins, who have six World Series appearances, most recently winning it in 1991. The next incarnation of the Senators moved to Texas in 1972, where they have two World Series appearances (2010 and 2011). So if nothing changes over the next 119 (plus or minus 3) games, I’m going to hand the palm to the Brewers.

But really, who says there’s no room for hope? If 60% of the playoff teams change every year, there’s plenty of opportunity for last year’s cellar dwellers to turn it around. Why, just look at last year’s whipping dogs, the Marlins (.383) and Astros (.315)! So far this season, the Marlins are at .511 (23-22), squarely in the chase for the NL East, and the Astros are a blistering .378, on pace to lose 100 games… Oh. Uh, hey guys? There’s Plenty of Baseball Left!

Waive Bye-Bye

I promised you all another baseball post “towards the end of the month” and here it is, just in time. Happy July 32nd, everyone!

Jokes aside, I wanted to hold the post until after the so-called “Trading Deadline” so I could try and put the activity in some kind of context.

For the record, I spent a chunk of time writing this post in the context of a holiday, but it just didn’t work. The Trading Deadline isn’t a holiday, it’s just a mile-marker somewhere between Independence Day and Thanksgiving. Chronologically, it’s probably closest to Labor Day, but let’s face it, Labor Day isn’t really much of a holiday these days (though that may change around here depending on what happens with BART and the Bay Bridge; that’s a topic for another day, though).

So what is the Trading Deadline, anyway? From the name, you might think that it’s the last chance for teams to trade players. You would be wrong. Oddly enough though, this isn’t one of those “religious weirdities” like the timing of the All-Star Break. It’s actually a symptom of peoples’ inherent laziness. July 31 is really the “Non-Waiver Trading Deadline”. Up until 4:30 Eastern time yesterday, if teams wanted to trade players, they could just work out the details of a deal and do it. From now until the end of the season, though, the players have to clear waivers.

Um, what?

Waivers basically means that every team in baseball gets to meddle in the dealmaking. This gets ugly to talk about in the abstract, so let’s use an example to make it concrete.

The Mariners desperately need a pitcher. In a fit of insanity, they call up the Giants and say they’re interested in Barry Zito*. The Giants, no fools they, agree that sounds pretty good. They’d love to get rid of him and get something in return, but since it’s July 32, they can’t just cut a deal. Instead, they put Barry on waivers. Now every team in the major leagues (including the Mariners) can say “Sure, we’ll take him.” In this case, since the Mariners and Giants are in different leagues, all 14 National League teams and five American League teams would have a chance to speak up before it got to the Mariners. The Mariners are probably out of luck; even if nobody in the National League wanted him, somebody would probably claim him just to prevent the Giants from getting something good in trade. The Rockies are division rivals with the Giants, and they’re thinking that if the Giants get rid of Zito and possibly pick up a decent hitter, they’re going to be serious trouble. So the Rockies make a claim on him.

Now the Rockies have two days to arrange a trade. They’re not really interested in Zito, and they’re certainly not interested in picking up the rest of his contract (around $7,000,000 for the rest of this year and $18,000,000 for next year, or $7,000,000 to make him go away). So they don’t offer much, and the Giants say “screw it.” They can either pull him back off waivers, or they can wash their hands of him. If they wash their hands, the Rockies pay the Giants a nominal fee ($20,000) and they’re stuck with Zito. If they pull him back, they can always put him on waivers again–but if they do, they can’t pull him back a second time: they have to either work out a trade with the claiming team or just give him up.

* In reality, the Giants would be more likely to just put Zito on waivers to see if there’s any interest, rather than waiting for someone to come to them with a deal. But it’s funnier this way. And “it makes a better story is why.

As I said, that’s a mess. You can see why people just call July 31 the trade deadline and let it go at that. Surprisingly enough, trades do happen after the non-waiver deadline, but they’re not as common as before. Incidentally, there’s another trade deadline as well: any player traded after August 31 cannot play in the playoffs. Naturally, trades are even rarer in September than in August.

So what did all of this mean for Our Team (the Mariners)? Absolutely nothing. The Mariners are apparently following Polonius’ advice (“Neither a borrower nor a lender be…to thine own self be true”). They neither traded away Rauuuuuuuul (or anyone else) for prospects nor sacrificed prospects for a player who might help them now.  Well, OK, they traded Robert Andino to the Pirates for the famous “Player To Be Named Later” or cash.  But that hardly counts as Andino has been in the minors since late May and most people had forgotten he was even with the Mariners.

That discussion of hope from a couple of weeks ago still applies. Where are we with that? Well, they came up a little short on continuing the hot streak after the All-Star Break; rather than being no worse than four games under .500 at the end of July, they’re actually seven under and will need to go 31 and 24 the rest of the way to reach respectability. Not impossible, but not likely either. So what do we hope for now?

Well, we can watch Rauuuuuuuul go after that over-40 home run record (though it should be noted that he hasn’t hit one since the All-Star Break). We can continue to enjoy the development of their infield; their hot bats may have cooled off a little, and they’re having a few off days here and there, but still a big step up from recent memory. We continue to keep our fingers crossed for the young pitchers developing in the minors. We start thinking about possible trades next winter. And we keep waiting for a miracle.