Best/Worst

Playoff baseball brings out the best in some people. Unfortunately, it also brings out the worst too. Let me be clear here: I’m not talking about the players. I’m talking about the fans.

The best: tens of thousands of people–hundreds of thousands if you include the ones outside the stadium–coming together, ignoring their differences, sharing their emotions. That kind of unity has power. One could legitimately argue that it’s useless power: it doesn’t produce anything, it doesn’t visibly last much beyond the final out, and it comes at the expense of “the other”. But that sense of community lingers. It strengthens the local identity. Even if it only temporarily slows the inexorable creep of global homogeneity, it’s worthwhile.

The worst? Well, it’s the other side of the same coin.

Allow me to set the scene for those who haven’t been following the playoffs.

Yesterday’s Texas/Toronto game was the deciding game of the series, with the winner going to the American League Championship and the loser heading to the “Just Wait Until Next Year” table.

Texas scored a run in the first inning, and held the lead until the sixth, when Toronto tied the score on a solo home run. Which brings us to the seventh inning and a play that most people have never seen before, and may never see again.

You may be able to see it here. Maybe. MLB’s support for video clips is somewhat erratic. But in short, Texas’ Rougned Odor got to third with two outs. With two balls and two strikes on the next batter, Shin-Soo Choo, Toronto catcher Russell Martin tried to throw the ball to his pitcher and it bounced off of Choo’s bat. Odor ran for the plate, crossing it before any Toronto player picked up the ball. While he was running, the umpire called the play dead. After some discussion, the umpires agreed that the play should not have been called dead, Odor was declared safe, and Texas reclaimed the lead.

At that point, fans began throwing garbage, including bottles and cans, at the field. For more than fifteen minutes. When the game finally resumed, Choo struck out.

Odds are, more bottles and other heavy objects landed in the stands than made it onto the field–fans endangering other fans–let’s face it, anyone with the arm strength to hit the field from the upper deck with something that size and weight would be playing baseball, not watching it. But it gets worse.

When Toronto came to bat in their half of the seventh inning, Texas committed three consecutive errors, loading the bases. Two batters, two outs, and one run later–score again tied–Jose Bautista hit a home run, giving Toronto a three run lead, their first lead of the game.

And fans again started throwing garbage at the field. Yes, celebrating by doing exactly the same stupid thing as they did in the earlier protest. Still more dangerous to each other than anyone else. Still forcing the game to halt until the commotion died down and the junk was cleared off the field.

Don’t try to figure it out. It doesn’t make sense. But that same power and sense of community can be directed to the dark side just as easily as to the light. (Insert your own reference to political rallies here.) Once a pattern of behavior is established in a group, they’ll go back to it more readily than they’ll come up with a new one.

I expect there will be calls for laws to try to curb such behavior. I also expect that any laws that are passed won’t do any good. A few hundred police can’t control thirty thousand without escalating the situation to even higher levels of emotion and danger.

As for the rule that triggered the whole mess in the first place–that play is live if the catcher’s throw hits the batter or his bat, and the batter didn’t intentionally interfere with the throw–there are already calls to change it. That’s almost as stupid as throwing garbage.

It’s an incredibly uncommon situation. Consider that there are several hundred throws from catcher to pitcher in every game, there are more than 2,400 games per season, and yet millions of people who have been watching baseball for decades had never seen it happen before yesterday. Granted, it may become somewhat more common, thanks to this year’s rule intended to speed up play by keeping batters in the box between pitches, but even so, this was the first time it happened this year, and the rule has been in effect all season.

Attempts to legislate it away risk unintended consequences. At best, it’ll change the umpire’s responsibility to judge whether the batter intentionally interfered to judging whether the catcher intentionally hit the batter. One judgment call is no better than another.

And let’s not forget that there’s almost never any time pressure when throwing the ball back to the pitcher. Frankly, if the catcher can’t take a fraction of a second to make sure the batter isn’t in the line of fire, allowing runners to advance, or even score, seems like an appropriate punishment for the crime. Remember, they don’t automatically get the next base. If the defense is alert, the runners could be tagged out.

Imagine the excitement–and lack of bottle throwing–had pitcher Aaron Sanchez or third baseman Josh Donaldson grabbed the misdirected ball and thrown Odor out, ending the inning with the score still tied.

Predictions

Bleah!

Yes, it’s a cat post and a baseball post. Take that, haters!

Happy New Year once again!

Winter is officially over. Whether you’re a Reform believer who considers the season to have begun on 3/22 in Australia, a Conservative believer looking to San Diego Sunday night, or an Orthodox believer honoring Pittsburgh yesterday afternoon*, you can agree that the first game of the season has been played. Even if your team lost, all is right with the world for this one day: baseball is back.

* Or Cincinnati, for the truly Orthodox.

OK, I know there are a few Ultra-Orthodox believers who consider the concept of official games in March to be heresy. I presume that both of you will be glued to your TVs this afternoon for your Opening Day.

Naturally, the media are filled with predictions. For what it’s worth, the Dodgers are the early favorites in Vegas to win the World Series (11/2 odds; it’s amazing what winning a couple of religiously dubious games will do for your reputation). By contrast, Vegas has the Astros at 250/1 odds and almost* everyone else has them down for a dead last finish.

* See below.

There’s a long-standing tradition of calling on pets to pick the winners–and many of the professional predictions read as though they had been picked by a pet. Last season’s best feline prognostication came from Baseball Prospectus. To make everything crystal clear: I’m using “best” to mean “most entertaining”, not “most accurate.” Note that none of the selected teams made the playoffs.

But it’s a tradition, and I, being a traditionalist, figured I should do my part. I chose to avoid the usual approach of having the cats choose all of the divisional winners, the winners at each stage of the playoffs, and the World Series winner. Not only does that help make this post slightly less of a clich√©, but it also made the project practical. By the time I herded five cats through a process that long and complicated, we would already know the World Series winner, and be looking ahead to 2015.

I settled for just asking the crew to pick the winner of the AL West. To give a basis for judging each cat’s reliability and interest in baseball, I also asked them to recall who won the division last year. Maggie graciously lent a hand (two hands, and at least one hip, actually) to the task of feline management. Thanks, Maggie!

It's Texas, damn it!We kept it simple. One piece of paper with the logos* of the five teams in the division. One treat for each logo. We told them to eat the treat that was next to last year’s division winner. After they scarfed the first treat down, we replaced it, and asked them to eat the treat of the team they thought would win the division this year.

* We used the teams’ logos rather than their names because we’re pretty sure that only Kokoro is literate. (Yes, ‘Nuki and Rhubarb are fond of reading the newspaper, but they’re traditional feline butt-readers; we were quite sure that they would not be sitting on the treats.)

The Results

2013

  1. Oakland – The As won the division last year by 5 1/2 games. None of our panel correctly identified them as the winners.
  2. Texas – The Rangers finished the season second in the division. Yuki recalled them as having won. Yuki is the cat who has been most interested in watching baseball on TV, so it’s not too surprising that he came closest to getting it right.
  3. Anaheim (Don’t get me started on that whole “Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim thing. Sheesh!) – The Angels finished the season 18 games behind the As. Watanuki remembered them as the winners. My assumption is that since ‘Nuki is the most avid birdwatcher in our crew, he was irresistably drawn to the Angels wings and feathers.
  4. Seattle – 25 games back. Rhubarb identified them as the winners. In his defense, he did see or hear portions of most of their games last year. Maybe the name just stuck in his head.
  5. Houston – The Astros were the only team to lose more than 100 games last year and finished 45 games out of the division race. Kokoro and Kaja both pointed to them as the division winners. Ladies, I don’t know what to say. (Kaja at least has the excuse of having been isolated in Maggie’s office for most of the season, so she can legitimately claim to have been out of touch. That doesn’t explain Kokoro’s pick. Maybe she was confused by the Astros’ peculiar ability to beat the Mariners (9 of 19, including four of six in April and four straight in September).

Our panel went 0 for 5 in picking last year’s division winner, right in line with the standard set by the Baseball Prospectus team!

Maybe I should have asked Grey Tabby to participate. She may not see much baseball, but at least she understands competition.

Moving on. What about the panel’s predictions for this year?

2014

  • Mariners?  Pblthhhhhhht!
    Yuki picked the Rangers. As the panelist who came closest to retroactively picking last year’s winner, his prediction for this year bears a certain amount of authority. I wouldn’t venture to guess whether he’s made a rational assessment of the odds, or just likes Texas.
  • I'm not going to wear the damn cap.
    Kaja also picked the Rangers. Interesting that the two major antagonists on the panel reached the same conclusion. Maybe there’s something to this Texas bandwagon.
  • Texas?  Don't talk to me about Texas.
    Or maybe not. ‘Nuki disdains Texas. He was born in California, and by gum, he’s going to pick California teams. For this year’s division winner, he’s chosen Oakland.
  • I'll get you for this.  Just you wait...
    Kokoro has joined ‘Nuki, also picking Oakland. Did she copy off his answer sheet? Did she belatedly realize that the As have won the division the past two years and decide they’re poised for a third victory? Or does Ms. Koko-poof just have a sneaking fondness for the As’ center fielder, Coco Crisp? She’s not telling.
  • Oh, God!  Why did I pick Houston?!
    So far we’ve got a tie with two votes for the Rangers and two for the As. Rhubarb is the tiebreaker. His choice is… (dramatic pause) The Houston Astros! Um, what? Was that supposed to be a vote for the Rangers? I could see how he could have gotten confused: Arlington and Houston are only about 250 miles apart. Or maybe Mr. Rhubarb has a fondness for the underdogcat. After all, he did retroactively pick the Mariners for 2013. Come to think of it, given his namesake, it’s highly appropriate for him to pick the loveable losers to go all the way.

There you have it. According to a fully qualified team of feline experts*, the 2014 AL West Division champions will be the Rangers. Or the As. Or the Astros. Given the demonstrated accuracy of felines in picking sports winners, my recommendation is to put your money on the Mariners or Angels.

* Translation: They are unquestionably expert at being cats.

Services are again being held at convenient temples across the country. Time to make your plans to sneak out of work and soothe your soul at least once this season.

Just one word of advice: no matter how much they enjoy watching games on TV, don’t take your cats to the ballpark. They’ll complain when you refuse to buy them a hotdog, try to run onto the field to chase ground balls, embarrass you by cheering for the wrong team, and fall asleep in the second inning, leaving you to defend them against foul balls and suicidal seagulls.