Monday, June 27, 2011

A New Line-up for Major League Baseball?

Posted By on Mon, Jun 27, 2011 at 9:20 AM

Speculation about possible realignment scenarios in Major League Baseball tends to shake opinions like late-October leaves, dancing randomly to the ground . . . often with as much weight as the breeze that carries those leaves. I'm here to help you draw the line between what's possible and what's as likely as a Nats-Jays World Series. As long as Bud Selig's in charge, though, the most reasoned analysis should be considered yet another shaky leaf. But read on.

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Any consideration of "mixing" the leagues — and this includes creating two 15-team leagues or conferences — requires an evaluation of the designated hitter and the value of inter-league play. With baseball split evenly among its 30 teams, the schedule would require at least one inter-league (or inter-conference) series all the time. If this became reality, dancing around the DH debate would become foolish. A National League hosts games with no DH while NL teams use a DH in American League parks? The idea is as foolish as it reads . . . and is currently the way of things for the few inter-league games each team plays. A decision would have to be made: DH for all teams, all the time, or no DH, ever. And this is the third rail of modern baseball debate. Don't plan on the current commissioner going anywhere near it.

And what would constant inter-league play do to the swell of interest that limited inter-league action has brought (for 15 years now)? You have to believe the Marlins facing the A's in August would be as compelling as it sounds today. Making such a series an annual necessity hardly seems like a boost in value for a season-ticket buyer. A's-Giants is now a part of the baseball summer, but to stretch the inter-league match-ups to conform to some kind of scheduling balance would be misguided. When inter-league play arrived, fans had to accept their team sometimes playing a dramatically more challenging schedule than a chief rival. That toothpaste is out of the tube.

A single 15-team league (or conference) without divisions is ludicrous. Count the turnstiles in Houston when the Astros are battling to move out of 11th place in late July. What MLB should consider is a return to two divisions in each league, to again give weight to winning a division. When I'm named commissioner, I'll have two eight-team divisions in the National League and two seven-team divisions in the American League. Wild cards — more toothpaste — wouldn't go away, but division winners would host every game they play against a team that finished no better than second. Baseball has to redefine the value of winning a division title, and beyond a single home game in a five-game series. (No fair, cry ye fans of the best second-place team in the league? Well . . . win your division next year!)

MLB should look at the 2010 American-North division race in the Pacific Coast League. Despite having the three best records in the 16-team PCL, Memphis, Iowa, and Omaha found themselves battling over the last two weeks of August with a single, solitary playoff spot up for grabs. The Redbirds had to win 11 of their last 14 games just to tie the Cubs atop the division. (This is where MLB should stop looking. Instead of the two teams facing each other in a one-game playoff, the Redbirds advanced based on a tie-breaker.) The point is, fans in three PCL cities were desperate to see their team win, knowing second place was no better than last. It's called a pennant race, and it's been dead these 17 years (the last two-division-per-league season was 1993).

Selig will likely take the path of least resistance. A second wild-card team added in each league (giving baseball 10 playoff teams), a one-game playoff between runners-up, and three division winners hoping their rotation lines up against the momentum of the "wild card winner." Give the new system a decade, and we'll debate possibilities again.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Shuffling the Cards

Posted By on Mon, Jun 20, 2011 at 9:45 AM

If you saw any of the Memphis Redbirds’ recent eight-game homestand, chances are you saw at least one player currently wearing a St. Louis Cardinal uniform. The Redbirds have made an unusually deep impact on the Cardinals’ 2011 season, especially when you consider the All-Star break is still three weeks away. With injuries sapping the big-league roster, no fewer than six Redbirds have headed north to make their big-league debut this spring: shortstop Pete Kozma, third-baseman Matt Carpenter, catcher Tony Cruz, outfielder Andrew Brown, and pitchers Lance Lynn and Eduardo Sanchez. Among these call-ups, only Sanchez can claim a secure spot on the Cardinal roster. (And he landed on the disabled list last Thursday with a tight shoulder.) When (or if) the Cardinals get healthy will, in turn, impact the Redbirds’ chances at a third straight trip to the Pacific Coast League playoffs.

The broken hand David Freese suffered in early May created a vacancy at third base for St. Louis that has yet to be filled, and the domino effect of Cardinal manager Tony LaRussa shuffling his lineup has left Cardinal Nation guessing as to who might fill a lineup card behind Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman, and (when he’s healthy) Matt Holliday. Former Redbird Daniel Descalso has proved valuable at both the hot corner and second base, but not valuable enough to play every day (.242 batting average through Sunday). Tyler Greene (.198) has put in some innings at the same two positions, but hasn’t shown the pop in his bat needed for more than a dozen at-bats a week. Greene is again wearing a Memphis uniform.

Matt Carpenter was a spring-training sensation and nearly made the St. Louis roster for Opening Day. But after going 1 for 15 during a recent promotion, he clearly belongs at AutoZone Park, where he can provide middle-of-the-lineup production instead of the supplementary role he’d play with the Cards. The same can be said for Brown, who opened eyes in Memphis with a .351 batting average, 11 home runs and 41 RBIs over his first 50 games. Brown finds himself in St. Louis filling in for the Cardinals’ top reserve, Allen Craig, who is sidelined with a knee injury. Should Pujols miss extended time with a wrist injury suffered Sunday, you won’t see Brown in Memphis for several weeks.

To Redbird manager Chris Maloney’s credit, Memphis scratched its way back to the .500 mark last week and is again in contention in its division of the PCL. With Lynn back in the rotation, the Redbirds’ pitching may stabilize in time to take control of what looks like a two-team race with Omaha. (Though you never know with the roster fluctuation in Triple A. Last place Iowa is only seven games behind the first-place Storm Chasers.) Adam Ottavino, P.J. Walters, and Brandon Dickson are all “four-A” starters, on the cusp of big-league innings. They, along with Lynn, will determine how far the 2011 Redbirds can go.

• Even with all the injuries, the story of the 2011 Cardinals will be written by its tattered bullpen, at least until help is found. Last Tuesday in Washington, the Cardinal pen coughed up a 6-2 lead in the seventh inning to a Nationals team that sat dead last in the National League East. The next night, former closer Ryan Franklin and Brian Tallett gave up five earned runs in two innings of a 10-0 loss. Then Thursday, having tied the game in the ninth inning, the Cardinals lost their sixth straight when the team’s current closer — former Redbird Fernando Salas — gave up a three-run walk-off home run to Danny Espinosa (a .233 hitter) in the 10th inning.

The bullpen woes run too deep to fix with one or two arms. (Mitchell Boggs is back in the mix after returning to Memphis for fine-tuning and flame-thrower Maikel Cleto has been promoted all the way from Double-A Springfield.) Which means St. Louis is going to have to outscore teams to remain in contention. The return of Holliday from the DL and the hoped-for return of Freese (by the Fourth of July?) may pad the scoring column for the Cardinals. The padding is much needed, as no lead will be safe for this team as summer’s dog days near.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Why Do We Watch Sports?

Posted By on Mon, Jun 13, 2011 at 10:00 AM

There are those who wonder what all the fuss is about with spectator sports. Why do we put so much time, energy, and money into the cheering of athletes, professional or otherwise (sometimes, a combination of the two). In Seinfeldian terms, the cynics say we are “cheering for laundry,” rooting for strangers who do not know us (the fans) and, worse, don’t care all that much about whether or not their performance pleases us. Remember basketball Hall of Famer Charles Barkley’s most famous line: “I am not a role model.”

I’ve long explained my personal attraction to sports with two fundamental “legs” on which my fandom runs. First, I enjoy seeing human beings do what the vast majority of us simply cannot. Taken further, I like seeing people do things we try to do — hit a baseball or golf ball, shoot a basketball, run a marathon — but will never do as well as the most talented among us. The second joy I take from sports is the shared experience they provide, games or achievements that become talking points for other fans who witnessed the same thing . . . but with their own unique perspectives.

On a recent trip to my hometown of Northfield, Vermont, I experienced three events in two days that were shining examples of the communal element we sports fans crave. These were big events that turned out even bigger once the athletes on stage had completed their performances. But what happened on a television screen in front of me was merely the beginning.

On Sunday morning, June 5th, I watched the French Open championship between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer with my mom, in the house where I spent my high school days, where Mom has called home now for 28 years. My mom cannot keep score of a tennis match, but she can recognize the two finest players of this generation — the greatest rivals their sport has ever seen — play a match the way an artist might draw it up. Federer (he of a record 16 Grand Slam titles) seemed to take command in the first set, only to have one would-be-winner after another returned by Nadal, a man who has become to clay courts what Fred Astaire was to a sound stage. I explained to Mom that, regardless of who won this battle, 24 of the last 28 Grand Slam events will have been taken by Federer or Nadal, a stretch of dominance we’re unlikely to see again. By the time the Spaniard had earned his sixth French championship, my mother and I had a tennis memory to cover any future conversation on the sport’s “best ever.”

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That same Sunday, near sunset, I joined a buddy at a pub for Game 3 of the NBA Finals. I met Brian at Vermont’s Boys State, 25 years ago this month. Like me, he was a high school basketball player, and he’s among the few people on the planet who appreciates my longtime devotion to the Dallas Mavericks. In other words, once the ball was tipped, he could speak the language. Above an oversized hologram celebrating the Boston Celtics’ 17 NBA titles, a big screen displayed the dramatics of Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Dirk Nowitzki in what was becoming one of the most tightly fought Finals in history. When Dirk’s last-second shot attempt to tie the game bounced astray, there was little griping or whining. Brian understood my take, which means I had a partner to empathize should the “what if” deliberations come into play. (They didn’t come into play. Brian was the first to text me Sunday night when the Mavericks won the championship.)

The next day, for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final, I met a pair of high school classmates — each of them hockey players — to pull for the Boston Bruins in another local watering hole. For five winters, Jason and Tim gave me grief for being merely a basketball player. Real athletes wear sleeves, I’d hear. (And particularly with my arms.) A quarter-century later, a hockey game served as the magnet for us to tap beer bottles and debate the merits of our children as they surpass any expectations we might have had before fatherhood. The game will be remembered for the devastating hit that sent the Bruins’ Nathan Horton off the ice via stretcher, and for the eight goals Boston scored over the last two periods against one of the NHL’s finest goalies, Roberto Luongo. But when I remember this game, I’ll remember the familiar smiles of my old friends (and trying to convince them that my arms have gotten bigger).

So all you sports cynics take note. It’s not necessarily the teams we cheer, or the result of the game we’re watching. No, it’s about context. Those you see watching the game next to us ... they’re the reason.

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