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!

Season Liberally With Tears

Tears of sorrow, tears of joy.

Feel free to skip ahead to the playoff discussion if you want to avoid the depressing bits.

And so another season comes to an end. Ten of the 30 teams move on to the playoffs. Fans of the other 20 teams crawl into bed, pull their team-colors blankets over their heads and mutter darkly about what went wrong.

I’ve talked a lot about hope this year, and will again. Just not quite yet, thanks. First there’s that “crawl into bed” period to get through. For most fans, it’ll last a couple of days. Then there will be some news about their team that can be interpreted as hopeful, and they’ll emerge from under the covers in time to watch the World Series while talking up “next year”. For others, it’ll take a bit longer.

Let’s compare a couple of examples. Can I have some volunteers from the audience, please? Thank you. You, there, the San Francisco Giants and, let’s see, how about you, the Seattle Mariners. I want to assure all of you that I have in fact never met either of these teams, and they are most assuredly not shills planted in the audience.

The Giants won the World Series last year. This year, with essentially the same team, things didn’t go quite as well and the team finished with a less-than-stellar 76-86 record. That puts them in a tie with San Diego for the 18th best record in baseball, just a smidge below the middle of the pack. I won’t go into what went wrong — even if I could adequately summarize it in the space available, it would deprive the fans of a winter of argumentfriendly discussion. Let’s just note that the Giants have a reasonably solid core that needs some fortification. Sunday they announced that they had driven a truck loaded with dollar bills onto Hunter Pence’s front lawn, thereby preventing a major piece of that core from heading to free agency. They’ve also formally stated that they’re loading another truck and programming its GPS for Tim Lincecum’s front yard. In short, they’ve got money and they’re not afraid to spend it where they think it will do the most good. Perhaps even more importantly, ownership, the general manager, and the manager* are clearly aligned on what to do next. Giants fans can come out from under the covers in time for tonight’s first playoff game (Cincinnati at Pittsburgh).

* For the uninitiated, the general manager is a suit-wearing guy who sits in an office; his (well, it’s usually a him) responsibility is the team’s strategy, as expressed via (among other things) draft choices, free agent signings, and managerial hiring. The manager is a uniform-wearing guy who sits on the field with the players; his (it’s always a him) responsibility is the team’s tactics. In most other sports, he would be referred to as the “head coach”.

Meanwhile, back in Seattle, the team finished the season on the losing end of a 9-0 blowout. Their 71-91 record is the 25th best (or fifth worst, if you prefer a smaller number) in baseball. Management is clearly completely unaligned on what to do next. The manager last year rejected a one year contract extension for 2014. The front office did nothing to counter rumors during the season that the manager would be fired. The departing manager wanted (he says) to develop the team’s prospects while bringing in a core of players in their peak years via trade and free agency. The general manager and ownership have been quiet on what their plan is, but over the past few years they have brought in a large number of older players nearing retirement while the prospects have been rushed to the majors and forced to learn on the job.

The general manager was given a one year contract extension; that puts him squarely into “win or you’re history” territory. That encourages him to overspend for free agents and trade away the promising rookies and prospects in the hope of assembling a group of individuals that will overcome their lack of cohesion to win more games than they lose. Sort of the baseball equivalent of selling the car you use to get to work to put a down payment on a house — and then getting an ARM loan with a huge balloon payment. Even if he doesn’t fall into that trap, he has to find a new manager who will want to take what’s likely to be a one year position (if the general manager doesn’t come through and is not renewed, his replacement will want his own choice for manager) while simultaneously trying to convince useful free agents to come to a team in disarray.

Mariners fans may be staying under those covers until next August when the general manager is let go. Or maybe until the following Christmas, when a new one is hired, too late to do anything useful at the annual winter meetings.

Oh, who am I trying to kid? That would be the logical thing to do, but religion is rarely logical. Most of them will be out of their bed-caves by mid-February when pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training. (One more than half is “most”, right?)

OK, we’re done with the depressing bits, I think. Let’s talk about the playoffs.

This year the five teams in each league with the best records have actually made the playoffs* (although the AL had to extend the season by a game to give Tampa Bay the opportunity to beat Texas to make that true.) In the NL, we’ve got Atlanta, St. Louis, LA, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati. The AL has Boston, Detroit, Oakland, Cleveland, and Tampa Bay.

* That doesn’t always happen: the winner of a weak division may have a worse record than the number two or three team in a strong division. Until last year, only four teams made the playoffs from each league; the addition of a second wild card team should help cut down on top teams not making the playoffs, but it’s not a guarantee. Even last year with the second wild card in place, Tampa Bay (90-72) and the LA Angels (89-73) didn’t make the playoffs, but Detroit did at 88-74. Mind you, Detroit won the American League Championship before losing the World Series to San Francisco, so having the best regular season record doesn’t exactly set you up for assured success in the playoffs. Maybe they should just hold a lottery for the last wild card spot? But I digress.

You have to root for someone: that’s part of the sporting experience, not something unique to the religion of baseball. So how does the poor, suffering fan of one of the other 20 teams choose who to root for? Allow me to propose a few simple rules to help out:

  1. 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. (A universal rule. In football, that eliminates Dallas, Washington, and (IMNSHO) Oakland.) So that means Atlanta is off the list. (In other, less happy years, that would also eliminate the Yankees.) I’d also include Boston on this list (sorry, Maggie), given the worship ESPN has lavished on them in recent years.
  2. You should not root for a team from your own team’s division. This is a contentious rule. Note that it is expressed as a “should”, rather than a “must”. The thinking here is that overcoming your normal antipathy for a rival is likely to bring you into unsafe proximity to that team’s fans. See the recent mixing of Dodgers and Giants fans for an extreme example of why this is a bad idea.
  3. That said, you really ought to root for somebody from your own league. If nothing else, crossing from the NL to the AL would require you to accept the designated hitter; going the other way would force you to watch pitchers try to hit. Either way, it’s sure to induce nightmares and insomnia.
  4. Teams with a record of futility get bonus points in the decision process. Pittsburgh is the clear leader here, as they’re making their first playoff appearance since 1992. NL Central fans who can’t root for the Pirates can look to the Dodgers, making their first playoff trip since 2009. Over in the AL, your best bet is Cleveland, who haven’t seen the post-season since 2007. Royals, Twins, and White Sox fans have a problem. They can’t root for the division-rival Indians or Tigers, we’ve already eliminated the Red Sox from consideration by anyone outside of Boston, and Oakland made the playoffs last year. That leaves them with Tampa Bay, who made the playoffs the year before last, which is not exactly ancient history. Still, they’re better off than they would have been if Texas had beaten Tampa Bay last night. Since Texas made the playoffs last year, those AL Central fans wouldn’t have had anyone to root for, and would have been denied the privilege of attending services.

Me? By the rules, I should be rooting for Cleveland. Unfortunately, I can’t summon up any emotion in support of the Indians. That being the case, I’m going to invoke my secondary loyalties to the Giants and Mets (74-88, squarely between the Giants’ and Mariners’ records) to allow me to cross the Great Divide between the leagues and root for the Pirates.

Assuming I can even see the TV from under my blankets.