Limping Into Summer

Before I get into today’s real subject, let me take just a moment to remind you that The RagTime Traveler will be released June 6, exactly two weeks from today. June 7, I’ll be signing copies from noon to 1pm at Seattle Mystery Bookshop. Spread the word!

Moving on.

I haven’t written much about baseball this season, largely because it’s been a rather painful year for Seattle–no pun intended. The season has been marred by injuries, bad play, and an overall failure to live up to expectations.

But I can’t keep pulling the covers over my head and hoping the team will improve. So I’m going to pick at the scab a little.

The Mariners are among the youngest teams in Major League Baseball. Only the Rockies and Marlins (founded 1993) and Diamondbacks and Rays (founded 1998) are younger. The Mariners and Blue Jays both joined the league in 1977. I don’t know what, if anything, Toronto is doing to celebrate their team’s 40th anniversary, but Seattle’s advertising theirs fairly heavily.

Apparently, fortieth birthdays can be as depressing for baseball teams as for individuals. As I write this–before any teams take the field on May 23–the Mariners are 20-25, having lost three straight, and sit ten games behind Houston in the AL West. Meanwhile, the Blue Jays won their last game to pull to 19-26, eight and a half games behind New York in the AL East (and one game behind the Mariners in the Wild Card chase, not that either team is showing any sign of contending for those playoff slots).

At least I can take some consolation in the fact that the Mariners aren’t alone in their struggles.

It’s got nothing to do with youth, by the way. Colorado and Arizona are currently first and second in the NL West. Tampa Bay is three games ahead of Toronto, flirting with respectability. Only Miami, at 15-28, is making the middle-aged couple look good.

In case you’re curious, by the way, the next-oldest teams are the Kansas City Royals (18-26), San Diego Padres (16-30), Washington Nationals (formerly the Montreal Expos, 26-17), and Milwaukee Brewers (formerly the Seattle Pilots, 25-19). The evidence suggests that teams who indulge their mid-life crises by moving to another city do well for themselves. But let’s note that the Pilots’ mid-life crisis was when they were a year old. Don’t read too much into the raw numbers.

Anyway, given the fortieth anniversary hype around the Mariners, I started wondering how this year’s team compared to the 1977 team.

For starters, going into play on May 23, the Mariners had won two in a row, raising their record to 16-28. That put them eleven and a half games behind the first place Twins–but a mere four and a half games behind Oakland.

I haven’t found a way to look at player stats as of a particular date, but over the course of the season, Seattle’s leading hitters (based on OPS*) were Leroy Stanton (.852), Ruppert Jones (.778), and Dan Meyer (.762).

* OPS is on-base percentage plus slugging. Today’s statisticians consider it a better measure of a hitter’s value than batting average, which was the stat of choice in 1977. An OPS between .700 and .766 is considered average; an elite hitter will have an OPS above .900.)

Doesn’t sound too hot, does it? If you look at the team as a whole, the Mariners’ batters ranked twenty-first out of twenty-six teams. (The Blue Jays, by the way, ranked twenty-fifth.)

Nor did the numbers look much better defensively. Seattle’s pitchers, led by Enrique Romo and Glenn Abbott, collectively ranked twenty-fifth. (Amusingly, the Blue Jays’ pitchers came in twenty-first.)

The bright side, if you can call it that, was the Mariners’ fielding. Showing off the defensive emphasis that served them so well in the early two-thousand teens*, they came in twelfth in baseball. The Blue Jays showed off their consistency, coming in twenty-fifth in fielding.

* Sarcasm alert.

Given those stats, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to hear that the 1977 Mariners would finish the year at 64-98, thirty-eight games out of first. What might be more surprising is that they didn’t finish dead last in the AL West. Oakland slogged through a 63-98 year to take the West basement. Toronto, meanwhile, proved that consistency isn’t necessarily a virtue. Their 54-107 mark was the worst in baseball that year.

* If you need a dose of schadenfreude, the worst record in MLB’s modern era belongs to the 1916 Philadelphia Athletics, whose 36-117 (.235) sets a standard of futility that will hopefully never be matched. By comparison, the 1977 Blue Jays’ .335 is merely the twenty-third worst, tied with the 1988 Baltimore Orioles (sorry, Jackie).

By comparison with all that doom and gloom, today’s Mariners seem positively respectable. Nelson Cruz has a .947 OPS, twenty-second best in baseball. As of this writing, the team is eleventh in hitting, twenty-fifth in pitching, and eleventh in fielding. Get a few of their starting pitchers off the disabled list, and the Ms could be middle-of-the-pack Wild Card contenders.

OK, that doesn’t sound like much, but it’s all about setting attainable goals. And, lest we forget, the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals finished the regular season 83-78 and won the World Series.


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.

Caps On!

And that’s a wrap. The MLB regular season ended yesterday and the playoffs start tomorrow with the American League Wild Card game.

That means it’s time for the annual guide to who to root for. Normally, this post would go up on Tuesday, but I thought I’d do it today so you have time to visit the sporting apparel venue of your choice to pick up a cap or shirt to highlight your rooting interest.

Those of you who root for teams that made the playoffs, congratulations and good luck. The rest of us–those who normally root for someone else and those who don’t usually follow baseball–are unbearably jealous.

As usual, let’s start with a recap of the rules.

Rules for Rooting, 2015 edition

  1. Unless it’s the team you follow during the regular season, 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.
  2. You should not root for a team from your own team’s division.
  3. That said, you really ought to root for somebody from your own league. Crossing the league boundary without a really good excuse is in bad taste.
  4. Possession of team merchandise with sentimental value OR a history of following a favorite player from team to team trumps Rules Two and Three. It does not override Rule One.
  5. Teams with a record of futility or legitimate “misfit” credentials get bonus points in the decision process. What constitutes legitimate misfittery is up to you. Be honest with yourself.
  6. All other rules notwithstanding, you are always free to root for the Cubs. As I noted last year, this rule does make things a bit awkward, but–all Back to the Future jokes aside, next year’s rules will need some revision if the Cubs go all the way this year.

Got it all? Good. Here’s how it shakes out:

In the American League, the playoff teams are the Blue Jays, Yankees, Royals, Rangers, and Astros.

By Rule One, nobody but year-round Yankees fans may root for them in the playoffs.

Kansas City, of course, made it to the World Series last year before losing to the Giants, Texas played in the 2012 AL Wild Card, and Houston was the 2005 World Series loser. Toronto, however, ended MLB’s longest playoff drought–21 years–by winning the AL East.

Sentiment aside, that makes the Blue Jays the runaway choice for playoff-only fans and those who normally root for teams in the AL West or Central divisions. Non-Yankee AL East fans get the Astros, a fine dark horse.

Turning to the National League, the candidatesteams are the Mets, Cardinals, Pirates, Cubs, and Dodgers.

Last year, I said that “if the media turn 25% of their collective attention elsewhere…the Dodgers will be readmitted to the ranks of the root-worthy.” That is the case, leaving us with no teams to eliminate from consideration under Rule One.

St. Louis, LA, and Pittsburgh all made the playoffs last year, which means the Rule Five decision comes down to Chicago (last playoff appearance in 2008) or New York (playoff-free since 2006).

Rule Six is optional, but the recent playoff appearances of the Cards, Dodgers, and Pirates tend to reinforce it. My ruling: If you don’t normally follow baseball, or follow a team in the NL West or Central, pull for the Mets. If you usually follow the Nationals, Marlins, Braves, or Phillies, it’s “Go Cubbies!”

The major media are salivating at the thought of another Subway Series (Yankees/Mets)–what could be better calculated to help them spread their opinion that civilization ends somewhere around the middle of the Hudson River.

The sensible among us, however, will be rooting for an International Series (Mets/Blue Jays). I’ve got a sentimental attachment (with cap!) to the Mets, so I’ll be pulling for them to go all the way, and–as usual and despite my qualms about November baseball–for the series to run seven games.

Until we get there, though, I invite you all to join me in front of the TV Tuesday to cheer the Astros as they try to knock the Yankees out of the playoffs in the first round.