SAST 07

Happy Halloween!

We’re not planning to give out any candy this year–although we do have a couple of emergency bags in case someone shows up despite our best efforts to look like we’re not home.

There’s no particular reason we’re being anti-social, just a general lack of holiday spirit.

Beyond that, I am a little distracted at the moment. I’m neck deep in the third draft of Like Herding Cats–I’m hoping to finish before Thanksgiving–and I’m starting to run into the places where I got lazy in Draft 2. See, Draft 2 is written with a pen. On paper. So if I need to add a lengthy stretch of new text, I’ll often just make a note to myself: [Hey, Fred needs to explain why painting City Hall blue was a good idea.]

It’s not that I don’t know why it was a good idea. I just don’t want to have to read and transcribe half a page of my scribbles. And so I defer it to Draft 3, which gets done on the computer.

The downside is that it’s kind of like freeway driving at rush hour in a car with a manual transmission. Cruising along at twenty mph, transcribing the Draft 2 changes. Come to a complete halt while I check my notes–was it robin’s egg blue or sapphire blue–and then creep along at ten mph while I write the scene.

And then get off two exits down the road and circle back because I just came up with a great line that has to go into the new scene.

Anyway, distraction. So you get a bit of a Short Attention Span Theater for Halloween.

Moving on.

Am I the only person out there who got a scam spam of the 419 type from “Jeff Sessions Attorney General” recently?

I know the Trump administration is, shall we say, a trifle challenged, ethically-speaking. But really, Jeff, there are faster, easier, and–dare I say it–even legaler methods to separate fools from their money.

Now, you may say it’s probably not Mr. Sessions sending out these letters, and you’re probably right. Perhaps it’s some flunky in the Justice Department trying to curry favor–or line his pockets at the boss’ expense.

But there’s an more likely explanation. Read the letter I got:

Now ask yourself: who in the current administration is well-known for cranking out dozens of grammatically-suspect, logic-deficient electronic missives in the middle of the night?

Yup.

Donald, put down your phone and go play golf.

Moving on.

A sneak peek at Thursday’s final summation of how I did in predicting the playoffs: I got one of the two World Series teams right. Go, me!

As others have pointed out, it’s far too soon to anoint this the Best! World! Series! Ever! But it’s not too early to say it’s been a great one so far. Close games, mostly not decided until the final inning. Lots of home runs, some interesting strategic decisions to argue about, and a fascinating sideshow in the Yuli Gurriel and Bruce Maxwell stories.

We’re getting Game Six tonight and, if the Dodgers do us a solid, Game Seven tomorrow.

But.

I don’t know about you, but I’m having so much fun with this series, I don’t think even seven games will be enough. I’m hereby petitioning Commissioner Manfred to extend the World Series to twenty-three games. If we alternate two games in each city with a travel day in between, that’ll wrap it up with Game Twenty-Three on November 24, the day after Thanksgiving.

Let’s not forget that Los Angeles and Houston are warm weather cities. No worries about games getting snowed out. And really, isn’t twelve a much more satisfying number than four?

And the best part: consider the advertising tie-ins! Everyone can watch that climactic Game Twenty-Seven on the new TV they picked up that morning in a Black Friday sale.

What do you say? Who’s with me?

As Predicted

Ha! Nailed it!

Pardon my excitement, but I’m not used to seeing my predictions come true so quickly. Last week I suggested that Microsoft would “encourage” diehard Windows 7 and 8 users to upgrade to Windows 10 by making the upgrade tool a “Recommended” update in Windows Update. And now several reputable technology sites, including ArsTechnica, are reporting that Microsoft will do exactly that.

If you haven’t already upgraded, you’ll see Windows 10 showing up as an “Optional” update soon, and early next year, it will switch to “Recommended” status. Users who let Windows install updates automatically (the default for non-business users) will see the installer prompting them to carry out the upgrade once the flag is flipped to recommended.

Note that you will be prompted–it won’t be a silent install that suddenly drops you into Windows 10–and you can hide the update in Windows Update to prevent it from being installed, but that could certainly change, especially after the “Upgrade free until July” period.

Microsoft is pushing Windows 10 hard. After October 31, 2016, you won’t be able to buy a new computer with an older version of Windows pre-installed. Windows 7 will still get security updates into January of 2020, but which bugs get fixed is completely at Microsoft’s discretion. As we saw with XP, the number of security flaws deemed not worth fixing grows rapidly as the end of support approaches.


Not all of my predictions come true. After last year’s correct call of the Giants over the Royals in seven games, I had high hopes for the Mets this year.

Unfortunately, the Royals had other ideas. Not only did they stomp the Mets into submission, they didn’t even take the full seven games. A true shame.

New York had good, solid pitching, but as I’ve said before, pure defense will only get you so far. You still need to score runs to win. It’s a bit of an oversimplification, but to a significant extent the Mets relied on Yoenis Cespedes to spark their offense for much of the second half of the regular season. When he went cold in the playoffs, Daniel Murphy took over the ignition duties, but nobody (ahem) stepped up to the plate in the World Series after Murphy’s home run streak ended.

Full credit here to KC: they just plain outplayed the Mets–and everyone else they faced in the playoffs–to earn the title. But it’s still disappointing that we only got a five game Series.

Ah well. Back to cooking contests on Food Network to keep me entertained.

Only 108 days until the start of Spring Training.

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.

Are You Series? Get Real!

The World Series is over, leaving us staring into the bleak off-season. Four months with nothing to console us but the occasional trade, free agent signing, or contract extension. *sigh*

But before we go there, let’s talk about the series. I made a few requests to the Baseball Gods regarding the way I thought the World Series should go. Let’s take a look and see if the gods were listening.

  1. The Royals should win the first three games. Nope. The Giants won the first game, ending the Royals’ post-season winning streak at eleven games. That’s a major disappointment. I was really looking forward to them taking a record away from the Yankees. Maybe next year–though there aren’t any long streaks currently active, so any new assault on the Yankees’ record would require the challenger to duplicate the Royals’ impressive–and record setting–assault on the first three rounds. It could happen, but I’m not going to hold my breath.
  2. The series should go to seven games. Nailed that one. Nobody’s unhappy about that: the Royals’ rooters are unhappy they didn’t win Game Seven, but they’re not sorry the game was played.
  3. Game Seven should go to twelve innings. Didn’t get that. Almost, though. The Royals had the potential* tying run on third in the ninth inning, but didn’t manage to bring him one. On the bright side, Game Seven was close all the way through. That was a pleasant change in a World Series notable for blowouts. Consider: the average margin of victory in the first six games was 5 2/3 runs. Throw out the Royals’ 3-2 win in Game Three and the average for the other five games was 6.6. A 3-2 game is a thriller. A 10-0 or 11-4 shellacking is not.

    * Broadcasters: a runner on base is not the “tying run” or the “winning run”, he’s only a potential run. Washington Nationals’ announcers, I’m especially looking at you, but this year almost everyone was guilty of this offense against logic and the English language. It’s almost as bad as “walk-off walk”.

  4. The Giants should win the series. Yup. If you can believe the polls, that’s only good news for inhabitants of the Bay Area and a few Orioles fans upset by the way the Royals manhandled their birds. For the other 95% of baseball fans, well, there’s always next year. Expat Royals fans in the Bay Area, note that local radio stations are once again playing Lorde’s song again. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether that’s a good thing or not.

So I went 2-2 with my requests. Not bad. I’ll take a .500 average any day.

Moving on.

The Giants’ win is their third World Series victory in five years, and of course the newspapers are throwing around the word “dynasty”. Sorry, I don’t agree. Look, I root for the Giants, and I’m pleased for them but what they have is not a dynasty. According to my dictionary (MW, of course), a dynasty is “a powerful group or family that maintains its position for a considerable time”.

I’ll grant the Giants “powerful group” but they fall on their faces on that “maintains its position” bit. Remember last year’s 76-86 finish, fourteen games out of the second Wild Card? Or 2011, when they missed the playoffs by four games?

The Yankees won three consecutive World Series between 1998 and 2000. The As did the same from 1972 through 1974. I’d accept those as dynasties. Even more impressively, the Yankees won four straight (1936-1939) and five straight (1949-1953). No question those were dynasties. Giants? Not so much.

Guys, break the curse of the odd years and win it all in 2015 and again in 2016. Then we can talk dynasty, OK?

I’m Not Making This Up

The World Series starts tonight, and the playoffs have already accumulated enough history to bury us up to our necks.

Those of you who didn’t laugh hysterically when I recommended rooting for the Royals and Giants may now laugh derisively. The Giants and Royals both cruised through the preliminary rounds, racking up a combined record of 16-2. That’s .889, slightly above the .600 figure I cited as the minimum necessary.

I’m not making this up.

They didn’t make it look easy: there were plenty of close games and come-from-behind victories. No boring series featuring obviously outclassed opponents this year. It’s been baseball you want to watch, regardless of your religious affiliation.

As for history, this is the first time both World Series teams won less than 90 games during the regular season. It’s also, not coincidentally, only the second time both teams have come into the playoffs via the wild card.

That 16-2 record? San Francisco is responsible for both of the losses; Kansas City is a perfect 8-0 so far. That’s a new record for wins to start the playoffs. The Royals’ first three playoff wins required extra innings, another record.

The Royals won their final three playoff games in 1985, the last time they made it past the regular season. That gives them an eleven game playoff winning streak. If they win the first two World Series games, they’ll hold the record for longest playoff winning streak. Since the current record holders are the Yankees (twelve from 1927 to 1932 and again from 1998 to 1999), all right-thinking fans will be pulling for the Royals in the first two games.

Really. I’m not making any of this up.

The Giants can’t lay claim to as many records as the Royals this post-season–although they did win the longest playoff game in history (18 innings in six hours, twenty-three minutes)–but they’ve cornered the market in human interest stories. Just look at the last game against the Cardinals: the tying run came on a home run from Mike Morse, who’s been bouncing around the majors since 2005 (Seattle* to Washington, back to Seattle**, on to Baltimore, and now to the Giants). Due to an injury, he played in exactly one game in September, had sat out the first two post-season series, and had only three previous plate appearances in the NLCS.

* There are a lot of ex-Mariners around baseball.

** And a disturbingly large number of players who have been with the Mariners multiple times.

The story behind the winning runs is even more of a tear-jerker. As the San Francisco press has been reporting to the point of nausea*, Ishikawa was released by the Pirates in April, signed a minor league deal with Giants, and sat in Fresno so long he considered retiring. When he was finally called up at the end of July, he was hardly used, appearing in only 47 games. His misplay of a fly ball in the third inning gave the Cardinals a 1-0 lead. So, of course he hit the game-winning home run to send San Francisco to the World Series.

* We’ll come back to the nausea shortly.

You know, if I were making this up for a book, I’d never be able to sell it, right?

So here we are, with two teams that weren’t supposed to make it past the wild card game playing in the World Series. Since I apparently created this situation by advising you all to root for the Royals or Giants, I feel a sense of responsibility. So here’s my rooting advice for the World Series: the Royals should win the first three games, running their record playoff win streak to an unlucky thirteen. The Giants should then win the next four, with the last game going to twelve innings. That will fortify us all nicely for the long, baseball-free winter that lies ahead.

In the meantime, the rivalry is getting heated. At least one San Francisco radio station has banned Lorde’s “Royals” from the airwaves until after the World Series. Kansas City stations, unable to find a Top-40 hit that has anything to with Giants in the title are retaliating by playing Lorde’s piece every hour on the hour. No offense intended to Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor, but that sounds like a cure worse than the disease to me. (For the record, Lorde appears to be taking the high road here. As of the last time I checked, her Twitter feed is blessedly free of any mention of the struggle.)

And here’s one final item that I really wish I was making up. Let it be known that wildly exciting playoffs are not a totally unmixed blessing. Consider this frightening object advertised in the SF Chronicle.
pm

That’s right. It’s the Precious Moments Giants “Home Run With You” figurine. And yes, there’s one for everyone who wants to horrify their favorite Royals fan as well. (Other teams are also available: due to production lead times, the Cardinals and Orioles have similar figurines. So do the Yankees because, well, they’re the Yankees.) It’s enough* to put one off baseball for life. I told you we would be getting back to the nausea.

* Almost.

Root, Root, Root, for…???

It could have happened, but it didn’t. The Brewers errored their way into a loss to knock themselves out of the playoff chase. The Indians won two of their last three, again, knocking themselves out of the chase. The Mariners… ah, the Mariners. They pulled themselves together and won their last four, but didn’t make the playoffs when Oakland tied their own shoelaces together, because the As didn’t quite fall on their bats.

Am I disappointed? Of course. Am I going to rant about it? Naturally. Just not today. I’ll save it for some time in November, when I’ll be needing a baseball fix to get me through the long, dark days without even a trade rumor. In the meantime, I’ll be over at the kid’s table with my turkey and sour grapes.

I enjoyed doing last year’s post on how to select a team to root for in the playoffs–and enjoyed the comments suggesting changes to the rules even more. So, here we go again with 2014’s Rules for Rooting.

  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. Addendum for 2014: You can root for such a team in the playoffs if and only if they are the only team you root for during the regular season.
  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 trump Rules Two and Three. New rule this year. If an old friend, a lover (or fondly-recalled ex-lover), or beloved relative gave you a shirt or cap, you may root for that team in their honor. You’re on shakier ground if you don’t have the merchandise, unless said flbr has passed away since their team last made the playoffs.
  5. Teams with a record of futility get bonus points in the decision process. Addendum for 2014: So do teams with legit “misfit” and/or “weirdo” credentials. What constitutes legitimacy? That’s between you and your conscience, at least until I get around to doing a blog post on the subject.
  6. All other rules notwithstanding, you are always free to root for the Cubs. A new rule this year, and I hope Stef will forgive me for strengthening the rule beyond her original formulation. Mind you, it’s irrelevant again this year, as it has been in so many years past (the Cubs finished at 73-89, seventeen games out of the division title and fifteen out of the wild card.)

For those of you who don’t want to chase down the logic chains yourselves, here’s your handy guide.

National League:
The teams are Washington, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco.

Washington and LA are eliminated under Rule One, the former for stealing one of Canada’s only two teams and renaming them the “Nationals,” and the latter for the ridiculous media overexposure lavished on Clayton Kershaw and Yasiel Puig. (The Dodger’s banishment is temporary. If the media turn 25% of their collective attention elsewhere next year, the Dodgers will be readmitted to the ranks of the root-worthy.)

Summing up Rule Five’s impact, the Cardinals reached–but lost–the World Series last year. The Pirates made it in as a wild card team, but lost to the Cardinals. The Giants didn’t make it to the playoffs last year. None of the three have strong misfit credentials.

Ignoring sentimental connections, which I can’t manage for you, that means your playoff team this year is the Giants, unless you normally root for San Diego, Colorado, or Arizona, in which case, you’re backing the Pirates.

American League:
Last year’s World Series winners, the Red Sox didn’t make the playoffs this year, which opens things up a bit. We’ve got Baltimore, Detroit, Anaheim (pardon me, Los Angeles), Kansas City, and Oakland.

If I’m invoking Rule One on the Nationals, I also need to invoke it on the Angels, for the cynical ploy of moving the team in name only (for the uninitiated, the team’s official name is “The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim”). No other team is disqualified under Rule One this year*.

* And thank all the Baseball Gods for keeping the Yankees out this year. Derek Jeter, by all reports, is a nice enough guy, but the idea of extending the Jeter farewell tour into the postseason is enough to induce nausea in the stoutest stomachs.

The ranking under Rule Five looks like this:

  • The As lost the AL Division Series to the Tigers last year.
  • Detroit lost the AL Championship series to the Red Sox. On the face of it, that should put them above the As, but I give them a few bonus points under the misfit clause for the lousy state of the economy in Detroit–they need all the sympathy and support they can get.
  • Baltimore lost the Division Series in 2012.
  • The Royals are making their first playoff appearance since 1985, when they won the World Series.

That makes the choice rather easy. Kansas City all the way–unless you normally root for Cleveland, Chicago, or Minnesota, in which case you’re free to cheer for the Orioles.

Non-fans worried about rooting for the wild card Royals, take note: the short series of games in the playoffs make it possible for any team to go all the way. It’s possible to play .600 ball (win 12 of 20 games) and win the World Series. The Angels are the only team to play better than .600 during the regular season. The worst record among the playoff teams was .543 (As, Pirates, and Giants). That’s a tight spread. A few good breaks can easily trump a nominally-better set of players.

There you have it. I’m rooting for a San Francisco/Kansas City World Series, with the Giants taking it in seven games. I hope you’ll join me.

Time Goes By So Fast

Here we are, roughly a quarter of the way through the season. (It’s hard to target the actual quarter point. Scheduling oddities, weather delays, and games scheduled across a ten hour range and four timezones mean that the only time all teams have completed the same number of games are before the season starts and after it ends. Note that a quarter of the schedule would actually 40.5 games, so if we were going for absolute precision, we would have to hit halfway through every team’s forty-first game. So not going to happen.)

As I write this, before any games have started on Tuesday, the Tigers have played 40 games and the White Sox and Diamondbacks have played 46. Everyone else is somewhere between those extremes, so we’re about as close as we’re going to get.

This is the point in the season where the official litany changes from “It’s still early!” to “There’s Plenty of Baseball Left!” For the teams struggling to stay conscious, TPoBL means “We can still turn it around,” while for the current front-runners, it’s more of a cautionary reminder: no division or wild card lead is safe at this point, even Detroit’s current 7 game lead. You might think that’s intuitively obvious, but to many fans, that doesn’t seem to be the case. The old mutual fund disclaimer* applies in spades. Just ask the Giants’ fans. Last year at this point in the schedule, the Giants were 25-20, one game behind the Diamondbacks, and visions of a third World Series in four years were playing the part of sugarplums in the fans’ dreams. At the end of the year, their record was 76-86, 16 games behind the division-winning (and much-hated) Dodgers. That’s why they play 162 games. Broadcasters are overly-fond of reminding us, the season is not a sprint. Annoying as the constant refrain may be, it’s certainly the truth. Anything can happen in a stretch that long.

* Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

The Giants, by the way, are currently 28-17, leading their division by three games. Fans, eager to grasp straws are pointing out that their World Series victories came in 2010 and 2012. “Surely,” they cry “the pattern is clear: even-numbered years are our years to shine!”

What else is going on? Well, let’s see. Last year’s playoff darling Pittsburgh Pirates are currently 18-25, hoping to climb back into relevance by the All Star Break and then make a late run at the division.

The Mariners have put together a baffling combination of stellar victories and hideous losses and currently sit one game under .500–exactly where most pre-season forecasts pegged them. This, I might add (in a totally non-partisan fashion, of course) with the majority of their expected starting pitchers beginning the season on the disabled list. In their case, TPoBL means “If we can stay close to .500 until they’re all back, we could do something amazing.” Kindly bystanders will refrain from pointing out that it really doesn’t matter who’s pitching if your batters go 1 for 30 or so with runners in scoring position…

Like the Mariners, the Orioles have been playing yo-yo games with their record. In their case, though, they’re currently two games over .500 and only half a game behind everyone’s favorite team to hate, the Yankees. TPoBL, to them means “Keep it up, see who we can pick up at the All Star Break, and watch the magic happen.”

Side note: If the playoffs started today, the AL would be represented by the Yankees, Tigers, As, Angels, and Orioles. The NL would have the Braves, Brewers*, Giants, Rockies and either the Cardinals or Nationals. That’s three, maybe four (depending on the results of the Cards/Nats elimination game), of last year’s playoff teams.

* This season’s feel-good team, the role held by the Pirates last year? Milwaukee has but a single World Series appearance. That was in 1982, and they lost in seven games to the Cardinals. But don’t anoint them just yet: The Nationals joined the league in 1969 (as the Montreal Expos) and have never been to the World Series. Washington’s last World Series was in 1933, when the then Washington Senators lost to the then New York Giants. Kinda sounds like the Nationals should be the feel-good team, right? Maybe. In 1961, the Senators moved to Minneapolis and became the Twins, who have six World Series appearances, most recently winning it in 1991. The next incarnation of the Senators moved to Texas in 1972, where they have two World Series appearances (2010 and 2011). So if nothing changes over the next 119 (plus or minus 3) games, I’m going to hand the palm to the Brewers.

But really, who says there’s no room for hope? If 60% of the playoff teams change every year, there’s plenty of opportunity for last year’s cellar dwellers to turn it around. Why, just look at last year’s whipping dogs, the Marlins (.383) and Astros (.315)! So far this season, the Marlins are at .511 (23-22), squarely in the chase for the NL East, and the Astros are a blistering .378, on pace to lose 100 games… Oh. Uh, hey guys? There’s Plenty of Baseball Left!

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.

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.

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.