A Cold Truth

While I’m thinking of it–I just got back from the store–Saturday is Ice Cream for Breakfast Day.

As TFoAHK reminds us, this holiday is not a corporate invention. There’s no mascot, no gifts to wrap*, and you need not give a single cent to our corporate overlords**.

* Do not hang tubs of ice cream beside the fireplace unless you like cleaning up sticky messes.

** I’m too lazy to make my own, hence the aforementioned trip to the grocery store (Tillamook Mountain Huckleberry, if you’re curious). But don’t let my laziness prevent you from digging out the ol’ churn.

Even better, ICfB Day is an international celebration, not something confined to the United States, or even the North American continent. Nearly everybody loves ice cream, so observing the occasion can only bring us all closer together. Imagine how much calmer the country would be next week if Robert Mueller and Donald Trump shared a Saturday morning sundae.

Okay, maybe that’s a little optimistic. But it can’t make their relationship any worse–at least not as long as nobody hogs the hot fudge.

Anyway, before you start leaving me nasty notes about good nutrition in the comments, I’m well aware of the issue. And, to preempt the comments from the other side, I’m also aware that the much-touted “ice cream for breakfast” study has been roundly debunked. (If you missed it, the study supposedly showed that eating ice cream for breakfast improved alertness and mental performance. What it actually showed–if it was even performed; there’s some doubt about that–was that eating anything for breakfast wakes you up and helps you think. So don’t skip breakfast, but don’t feel obligated to eat ice cream. Except for Saturday.)

No, eating ice cream for breakfast isn’t the greatest thing you can do for your body. Not even in the top ten. But unless you’ve got an overriding medical issue that requires you to avoid ice cream under any circumstances, a scoop for breakfast once a year isn’t going to do you any significant damage.

Live it up. Give yourself a treat. Cone optional, because I’m too chill right now for an argument over cake versus sugar versus waffle.

Merry Christmas From a Formerly Nameless Kitten

mc

What, you were expecting a Santa hat? Not in this house! We’re bringing Sachiko* up in the True Faith, after all.

* Yes, it’s true. The Kitten To Be Named Later has been named. Depending on how it’s written, “Sachiko” can mean “child of bliss” or “happiness”. She’s a happy kitten, and–if the Giants continue to play well–should remain a happy cat.

Am I disappointed that she hasn’t chosen to follow the Way of the Mariners? A little. But since she’s a Bay Area native, I understand her desire to cheer for a local team.

I can only speculate about why she chose the Giants over the As. She’s definitely a hands-on sort. Wants to do it all. I suspect that she simply doesn’t approve of the designated hitter rule.

It Could Happen

Here we are again, approaching the end of another season. The last games of the regular season will be Sunday, then we get a day off to prepare ourselves before Thanksgiving, aka the playoffs, begin Tuesday.

Look for my annual rundown of who to root for in the playoffs Tuesday morning. I had hoped to do that today, so you would have time to run out and get appropriate ceremonial garb (caps, shirts, underwear, etc.), but unfortunately, the teams aren’t quite set. As I write this, three teams are still hanging on, hoping for a miracle.

In the National League, the Milwaukee Brewers are four games out with four games remaining. If they win their final four games and San Francisco loses their final four, the Brewers would face the Giants in tiebreaker game for the final wild card spot. It could happen.

In the American League, there are two teams pondering their faint hopes, the Seattle Mariners (three games out with four remaining) and the Cleveland Indians (three and a half games out with three remaining). The As and Royals are currently tied for the wild card; the Indians and Mariners will be looking to win out and hope that one or both of the leaders to tie their shoelaces together and fall on their bats in ritual suicide. It could happen.

It could happen. That’s a nice thought. We’ve talked about hope so many times before, and “it could happen” is the ultimate expression of hope. The chances are poor (the oddsmakers give the Brewers a 0.3% chance of making the playoffs, the Mariners a 0.4% chance, and the Indians a 0.9% chance*), but hey, four game winning streaks and four game losing streaks happen all the time. Hell, the Mariners currently have a five game losing streak, and Texas, the second-worst team in baseball this year, currently has a four game winning streak. It could happen.

* The Indians are getting slightly better odds than the Mariners despite that extra half-game because they’ve got a better record over the past ten games and because they only need to win three games instead of four.

Year after year–decade after decade in some cases–we continue to pin our hopes on “it could happen”. Why do we torture ourselves this way? I could say that if we don’t torture ourselves, who will? And yes, there’s an element of truth in that: if you want to be sure something is done right, do it yourself. And baseball is, as we’ve said repeatedly, a religion. Faith is the core of the religious experience, and you can’t pay someone else to have faith on your behalf.

More, watching those last few games, clinging to the hope that “next year” could actually be “this year” until the final out is recorded* on your team’s chances, is also a show of loyalty. We all know the majority of players have no loyalty to the fans. We all know the owners, by and large, have even less loyalty. So? That doesn’t reduce our responsibility to live up to our commitments. That’s the deal: you play the games, we’ll cheer, no matter how depressing it might be or how hopeless it might seem.

* Or even beyond in this age of video review and managerial challenges…

So, go Cleveland! Go Seattle! And yes, go Milwaukee!

It could happen.

Merry Christmas!

Fair warning for those who skip the baseball posts: this is one.

This is the last of the “Baseball Religious Holidays” posts. It won’t be the last baseball post, but it does complete the annual cycle that began with the Happy New Year post last April.

Merry Christmas a little early (the holiday actually begins tomorrow)!

“Christmas? In February? What’s up with that?” I hear you ask.

Simple: the non-baseball world’s Christmas is derived from ancient festivals celebrating the end of winter. In the modern tradition, it’s also a celebration of gift-giving (read: “opening presents”). Oh yes, there’s also something about honoring a saviour.

Christmas works the same way for those of the True Faith. Observe:

The heathen Christmas begins a few days after the event it nominally commemorates: the solstice, officially marking the end of winter and the return of the sun, occurs on December 22. Christmas begins on the 25th and runs for a bit less than two weeks.

Similarly, baseball’s Christmas, also known as “Spring Training” and marking the end of winter and the return of the players, begins when pitchers and catchers report to their teams’ training sites in Arizona and Florida. Although the Diamondbacks and Dodgers players reported last week*, Spring Training begins tomorrow when the rest of the teams get started and runs for a bit less than two months. (For the record, this year pitchers and catchers arrive on the 12th, the rest of the players are due on the 17th, and pre-season games start on the 27th, give or take a day.)

* Arizona and LA start training early because they’ll open the season early with a pair of games in Australia** on March 22. They’ll then return to the US, finish Spring Training along with the rest of the teams, and be ready for Opening Day on the 31st. (Remember last year when the Astros and Rangers jumped the gun and played their first game the night before Opening Day? This year it’s the Dodgers and Padres doing the made-for-TV nonsense.)

** Australia? WTF? Look, I can understand having a couple of games in Japan from time to time. Japan loves baseball and it’s only reasonable to let them have a close look at the sport’s highest level. But Australia? They’ve got their own damn sport. I don’t see them giving up on Australian Rules Football in favor of baseball any time soon… (Back in its early days when it was desperate for content, ESPN used to show ARF games. For those who haven’t seen one, it’s worth digging around for a streaming broadcast. Take three sports I have no interest in watching (soccer, basketball, and rugby) and mix them together. Add a scoring system similar to American football. Somehow the result is quite entertaining.)

Both Christmases are celebrated by opening gifts. In one you have boxes covered in paper, holding a variety of objects, some of which will delight and some of which will disappoint. In the other you have players covered in uniforms, holding a variety of skills, some of which will delight and some of which will disappoint. In the first, you unwrap the gifts from your family and friends and try them out. By the end of the twelve days, you’ve got a pretty good idea of which ones are worthwhile and which ones should go to Goodwill. In the second, you unwrap the gifts from your GM and upper management and try them out. By the end of the 47 days, you’ve got a pretty good idea of which ones are worthwhile and which ones should be cut. Remind me: which one is baseball?

Then there’s that saviour thing. As I understand it, some non-baseball fans believe that Christmas celebrates the birth of an immensely powerful being who worked miracles, gave unstintingly of himself, and worked tirelessly to ensure that his followers would enter into Heaven.

As we’ve discussed, at the end of every season, the baseball fan looks at his team and tries to identify the one key lack that must be filled for next year’s team to win it all. Christmas, to the baseball fan, celebrates the unveiling of the player who will work miracles with his bat or pitching arm, give unstintingly of himself on the field, and work tirelessly to ensure that his team’s followers will enter into the heaven of a World Series victory.

Merry Christmas to all.

Play ball!

Happy Thanksgiving

Surprise! It’s a special bonus post!

Happy Thanksgiving!

(Yes, it’s another baseball post. Heathens may flee now.)

Thanksgiving in the Baseball religious calendar is a protracted event, lasting most of the month of October, and marked by the ceremony known as “the playoffs”.

At the beginning of the month, two-thirds of us are consigned to the children’s table, a rickety affair set up in the rec room, where we can console ourselves with shared tales of “almost” and “next year”. All the time we’re eating, we can listen to the happy conversations of those who made it to the real table in the dining room.

Over the next few weeks, some of us will reach our limits, stop eating, and retire to the living room, where we’ll sprawl in front of the TV and occupy ourselves with football, stirring only to make room on the couch for new arrivals from the ranks of those whose teams have been eliminated from the playoffs.

The true faithful are in it until the end, be it bitter or sweet. The World Series begins today, and all true fans, even those with deep ties to the Cardinals or Red Sox, are rooting for the same thing: a seven game series. Sure, some, perhaps even most, of the fans of those two teams are rooting for a four game sweep, but the True Fan of The Game watches because it’s baseball. Even a game in which you have no rooting interest is preferable to no game at all, and so we cheer for Game 7 and hope it goes into extra innings; conversely we weep over a sweep. The end of the World Series means no more games until Spring Training rolls around. Naturally, we want to put that off as long as possible.

Wait, so where’s the “thanks” in “Thanksgiving”? Certainly it’s obvious for the fans of the ten teams who made the playoffs, but what about those sitting at the kiddie table? Well, the fans of the six teams that had 90 or more losses this year are giving thanks that the season is over and they’re free to turn their collective attention to the off-season trade and free agent news. Fans of the six teams that finished at .500 or better but missed the playoffs are thankful for having stayed in contention until the last few days of the season, for achieving a measure of respectability, and for the knowledge that they really are likely only one puzzle piece away from making it next year. Then there are the fans of those other eight teams that finished with records between .450 and .499. They’re thankful to have avoided the ignominy of 90 losses, that they’re not fans of the Astros, the Marlins, or the White Sox. In short, they’re thankful for the existence of schadenfreude.

Hang on, back up a second. I keep saying things like “we watch it because it’s baseball”. That’s not really a help, is it? Why do we watch baseball, even when we don’t care who’s playing? Thousands of writers have used millions of words trying to answer that question. As you might imagine, I have my own ideas on the subject. I’ll be rambling about that a couple of times over the next few months. I need something to occupy myself with during the long, dark winter.

In the meantime, it’s still Thanksgiving, and will be for another four-to-eight days. Pass the turkey, please.

Independence Day

You knew it was coming, but you didn’t know exactly when. Now here it is, and it’s too late to hide. That’s right, it’s another baseball post!

We’ll be continuing our series of posts looking at the major religious holidays of the sport. The current one is Independence Day. Unlike the civil holiday of the same name, the baseball holiday lasts four days*. To the heathen, the holiday is known as “the All-Star Break”, the official mid-point of the religious year. Yes, “official” does not equal “actual”. Most teams played their 81st game two or three weeks ago, around the end of June. But who says religion has to be logical?

* This is actually a change in the scriptures. Until this year, the break was three days. This alteration seems unlikely to cause a religious crisis, unlike the previous one which grants home field advantage in the World Series to the league that wins the All-Star Game. Prior to that change, advantage alternated from year to year. It’s still a highly contentious debate ten years later.

“How can a day last four days?” I hear someone ask. Well, it just does. This is an allegory, after all, not a literal representation of mundane reality. If it really bothers you, petition MLB to expand the break to five days the next time they negotiate an agreement with the players’ union. If that happens, I’ll start calling it Independence Week (after I get done sulking, that is).

Why is it Independence Day?

This is the point at which fans are freed from a number of burdens.

  • Meaningful baseball – just as the civil holiday frees most workers from their jobs for a day, the religious holiday frees most fans from caring about the results of the baseball-related activities they see. (What about the home field advantage in the World Series? Isn’t that meaningful? Well, yes. Historically, the home team has won approximately 60% of World Series games, so there really is a home field advantage. But it’s only meaningful to the two teams that make it to the World Series. That means it’s only meaningful to the fans of two teams. Granted, we don’t know which two they are, but it’s hard to waste brain cycles on the chance that it will matter to your team: 19 of the 30 teams are still seriously in the hunt (I’m defining “seriously” as “odds of no worse than 20 to 1”). Worry about your team getting to the World Series before you start stressing about home field advantage.) And nobody really cares who wins the Home Run Derby.
  • Freedom from bandwagon fans – By now the “fans” who only show up when things are going well have departed for all of the teams who are under .500 (14 of 30 teams, 16 if you include those exactly at .500) and they’re starting to vanish from the teams over .500 but in third place or lower in their divisions (an additional three teams including the Yankees). OK, it doesn’t mean much–there are no fewer loudly expressed incorrect opinions or drunken idiots at the games–but it’s nice to know that almost everyone you see at the game is a co-coreligionist, there because they want to be there, not because it’s the hot place to be.
  • Freedom from unrealistic expectations – Fans of the bottom-dwelling teams are freed from the need to plan vacations around camping in line for playoff tickets. Instead, they have hope. Yes, this is when the cries of “Wait until next year!” begin. For the rest of July, the focus will be on trading current veterans to playoff hopefuls in return for hot prospects to beef up next year’s team. (We’ll talk about August and September in a couple of weeks.) Note that there’s always an exception to this rule. This year, it’s the National League West division, which has exactly one team over .500. The distance between top and bottom is 8.5 games, which means that even San Diego, currently at .438 can’t be totally counted out (odds makers have their chances of winning the division at 15 to 2, though their chances of making it through the playoffs to the World Series are currently at 40 to 1).

Hope? Seriously?

Yup. Isn’t that what religion is all about when you come right down to it? Hope for a better tomorrow/next life/afterlife?

Here’s how it works, using a randomly-selected* team:

The Mariners are currently hoping for respectability this season (a .500 record) and a realistic prospect for making the playoffs next year. The last (mumble) years have been marked by a significant lack of hitting; this past off-season’s acquisitions were intended largely to beef up the bats. For the first half of the year the new bats, mostly swung by older veterans, helped some but the effects were swamped by injuries and highly inconsistent pitching. On the other hand, in the past couple of weeks the rest of the team’s bats have been heating up. Some of those bats are being swung by rookies brought up earlier than planned to cover for injuries, others by younger veterans who had been expected to start hitting last year or the year before. And then there’s Raul Ibanez, one of those older veteran bats brought in during the off-season. He’s making a serious run at the records for home runs hit by a player over 41 and 40 (yes, heathens, the true faithful really do track that kind of statistic). He’s currently at 24; with the records at 29 and 34 respectively, he’s got a damn good shot at them both.

So here’s where the hope kicks in: Rauuuuuuuul (as it’s spelled in Seattle) and the young bats will carry the team the rest of the way this year. They’ll build on the pre-All-Star Break sweep of the Angels by pounding the Astros and Twins (two of the three American League teams with worse records than the Mariners) and hold their own against the Indians. That would bring them to the end of July no worse than four games short of respectability, leaving them well-placed to go just over .500 for the last two month to make it to .500 on the year. Towards the end of the month, they trade Ibanez to a team that wants a clutch bat off the bench in exchange for a decent outfield prospect. Next year the top pitching prospects in the minors come up to the majors, and the team, now with a nice balance of offense and defense vault past the Angels (crippled with expensive, non-performing players) and As (whose ability to get top performance out of unknowns will surely fade eventually, so why not next year) and go head-to-head with Texas for the division title.

Clearly that’s greatly oversimplified, but it gives you an idea of how hope works at the bottom of the standings. And it works, too. Just look at this year’s Pirates, who have put 20 consecutive losing seasons behind them and are currently at .602 with 13 to 2 odds of making the World Series. If it can happen to them, it can happen to anyone, right?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to watch the Home Run Derby. It may not mean anything, but it’s hard to find better entertainment than the crew of kids (8 to 15 years old) trying to catch the balls that don’t make it over the fence while not getting beaned.

* Not really random.

Happy Valentine’s Day

If April 1 was New Years Day, then May 31 is Valentine’s Day: that early-year holiday that you don’t get off from work, but still make the time to celebrate because it’s the day when you show how much you love your spouseOur Team.

As of the end of yesterday’s game, Our Team has played 54 games, one-third of the season, and has won an astounding 43% of them. 23-31 is, of course, just about the exact opposite of what the faithful were hoping for. It is also just about exactly what the experts were predicting at the beginning of the season.

A mere week and a half ago, they were one game under .500, in second place in their division, and showing some signs of respectibility. Since then, they’ve gone 3-8, had a couple of players go down with injuries, sent a couple of the members of the “core team of the future” to the minors, seen their manager start a feud with the press, and generally look like a team that will be hard-pressed to maintain that 43% winning percentage the rest of the way.

And yet, it doesn’t matter. It’s still baseball, they’re still Our Team, and no team anywhere in the league has been eliminated from playoff contention yet.

Baseball is a weird sport in some ways. The 162 game schedule has a tendency to drive won/loss records towards the middle. In most years, a team that wins 60% of its games will run away with its division (as I write this, there are four teams with records better than 60%: St. Louis has the best record in baseball at 35-17 (67.3%), with Texas, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh tied at 33-20 (62.3%). Note that three of the four are in the National League Central Division, leading me to suspect that scheduling may play a factor there; I expect those percentages to fall as they play more games head-to-head. Texas, meanwhile, has gotten 58% of their wins within their division, which features three teams under .500. But I digress.) The point is that a 100 win season is fabulous, a 90 win season puts you in the upper third of the standings (only 9 of 30 teams had 90 or more wins last year), and even a .500 season can have a team in contention until the final weeks.

Winning streaks are just as possible as losing streaks. While the Mariners have been losing 7 of their last 10, the As have been winning 9 of 10 and three teams have won 8 of 10. A winning streak to counter the losing streak, and they’re back within range of .500. And it wouldn’t take that much. A small improvement in the bullpen (four of those eight losses came in the opponents’ final at-bat) and a small improvement in run scoring (they’re 7-9 in one-run games) would have their record looking very different. (And it’s the run scoring that would help the most, now that I look closer. Statistically speaking, their record is exactly what the standard formula predicts for wins and losses based on runs scored versus runs allowed. Score more runs without changing the defense at all, and the wins should follow.)

This is starting to get number-heavy. The bottom line is that it’s too early for any team, not even the unhappy Marlins with their 13-40 record, to give up. Even if contention seems beyond your wildest dreams, there’s still a chance for respectability.

No matter how rough things are right now, the relationship – and the season – can be saved. My advice is to go celebrate the holiday. Duck out of work early (Cubs and Diamondback fans, call in sick since you have an afternoon game), have a nice dinner together (hot dogs and peanuts are traditional, but modern classics such as the Braves’ “Hammer” [fried chicken, bacon, pepper jack cheese, and pecan maple mayo sandwhiches with waffles as the “bread”], the Dodgers’ two pound “Victory Knot” pretzel, or the Brewers’ “Pulled Pork Parfait” [pulled pork and mashed potatoes in a parfait-style cup] are all acceptable alternatives*), and talk out your problems scream yourself hoarse cheering.

* All foods listed here are courtesy of Buzzfeed. If you suspect that stadium concessions are designed to kill the fans, you just might be right.

Exception: Yankees fans are hereby advised that your (spit) team’s current 30-22 record is entirely unacceptable. My advice for you is to swing by the stadium, buy two “Sliders Family Meal Deals” (five sliders and a pound of french fries served in a plastic bucket), and arrange to have one delivered to your favorite player in the dugout. Take the second one home, turn off the lights, and eat it by yourself, alone in the dark. (Red Sox: you’re safe as long as you stay at least one game ahead of the Yankees, but remember the stricture that all teams must do at least one game worse than the Mariners this year…)