More Independence

Two in a row? You betcha! It is a multi-day holiday, after all. But no, I’m not planning to do baseball posts all week.

First, a couple of followups on the Home Run Derby last night.

Much flack on the Internet over the choice of Pitbull as the introductory musical act. Oddly enough, there doesn’t seem to be anyone questioning whether the Home Run Derby needs an opening musical act in the first place. Seriously, what’s the relationship here? Are they trying to compete with the Superbowl Halftime Show? If so, they really need to up the spectacle level: a few blasts of fire just don’t cut it.

But I digress. The complaints about Pitbull seem to boil down to three:

  1. He sucks – That’s a matter of opinion. He’s sold enough records that someone must like him. Moving on.
  2. He’s not from New York – Everything else at the Home Run Derby was designed to showcase New York and the Mets new(ish) stadium. Why not get a musician from New York. A good question. Maybe no local musicians could figure out what purpose an opening musical act would serve? Or maybe they figured that the bad publicity would be likely to outweigh the benefits?
  3. He lipsynced the show and did a lousy job of it – It seems like every large-venue act includes some “assistance” in the form of “fill-in” tracks. Much as the notion offends, it’s going to happen. Did he do a lousy job? I don’t know. I watched the show and thought his motions were a bit behind the audio, but ESPN seemed to be having audio issues throughout the entire Derby. At times I heard bats hitting balls before the balls even left the pitcher’s hand. I’m not going to ding Pitbull for a technical glitch.

Next up: I realize my comment yesterday about the entertainment value of the ball shaggers could have been misinterpreted. No, I was not implying that I hoped that one of the kids would get hurt. Nor do I think I could do any better if I was out there. I’m just saying it’s like watching a pack of puppies chasing tennis balls: cute, frenetic, and occasionally spectacular. The kids’ range of skills is highly variable, and watching them try to balance “If I make this catch I’m going to look so cool on national TV” against “OMG, it’s going to hit me in the head” makes for great viewing. For the record, I saw two great one-handed catches, but my favorite play of the evening was a ground ball that went straight through the legs of three different kids before someone corralled it.

OK, enough on the Home Run Derby. Let’s talk about trades. In particular, John Brownson had a good comment on the subject yesterday, noting that baseball is a business, and most players will be traded at some point in their careers, even though there are some you as a fan don’t want to see go.

All unfortunately true. The flip side is that there are still players who spend their entire careers with a single team, and there are players you’re glad to see go. Realistically, the best you can hope for is that when a hero goes, the return is good (see, for example, Ken Griffey Jr. for Mike Cameron–Cameron might not have been the all-around superstar/face of the franchise that Junior had been, but the Mariners did get some pretty good years out him.) And when a hero declines, sometimes the best thing you can do is wish him well (i.e. Ichiro, whose post-Mariners performance has been a significant step up from his last couple of years as a Mariner. And it’s certainly not his fault that the return on the deal has been fairly uninspiring to date.)

In the case of Rauuuuuuuul, why would the Mariners trade the core of the current offense, a man who’s on his third stint with the team and popular with the fans? As John said, it’s a business. This season is, from a “wins = putting butts in the seats” perspective, going nowhere. Rauuuuuuuul is unlikely to have another fabulous season next year at age 42. Better to trade him to a team that thinks a clutch bat would make the difference in their playoff run and try to get a younger player who can help the team down the road.

Why “towards the end of the month” as I said yesterday? We’ll cover that in the baseball post I promised for the end of the month. If events play out as I expect, we can talk about where Rauuuuuuuul went, what the Mariners got in return, and why it happened when it did. If he’s still with the Mariners, you can watch me publicly flog myself before I cover why the end of July is significant.

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.