Archive

Archive for the ‘Baseball’ Category

On the All-Star Game

SteinbachThe very first baseball game I remember watching on television–I mean actually sitting down and WATCHING–was the 1988 All-Star Game, 25 years ago tonight (give or take a week). Sometime during the previous winter, my baseball fandom had shifted from collecting Topps baseball cards and filling my Panini sticker album (Lord, I loved that thing… still have it, in fact) to following the actual goings on of the sport. When my folks resumed taking me to Texas Rangers games that spring (we lived in the Dallas-Fort Worth area at the time, and even though the Rangers were horrible, it was a fun, cheap way to spend an evening), I shifted to watching the game on the field instead of the nearest cotton candy vendor. I stopped picking my favorite teams based on their mascot–the Tigers and Pirates were early faves for just that reason–and started rooting for my team of birthright, the St. Louis Cardinals. (Full disclosure: I was born in Independence, Mo., and my very early fandom was for the Kansas City Royals, who were still a Major League team in those days. But if I don’t have photos it never happened, right?)

That ’88 game was forgettable, by baseball standards. Held in the wholly unremarkable Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, it wound up being a pretty boring, low-scoring affair. But God, I was excited about that game. I remember we were going to dinner with friends of my parents that night, a farewell dinner, as it turned out (more on that in a minute). It was at one of those authentic-but-cheesy Italian joints where a piano player took requests like “Over the Rainbow” and the booths had shutters for privacy. They served what I remember calling a “spicy-a meatBALL!” At my insistence, my parents recorded the game on our then-state-of-the-art VHS recorder while we were out, but I wasn’t convinced it would work, or that they’d actually let me watch it when we got home. I distinctly remember my dad telling me in the parking lot of the restaurant, in a voice only exasperated fathers can summon to silence a one-track-mind son, that I would, in fact, be able to watch the damn All-Star Game when we got home.

And I did. And how I relished it. I geeked out watching Ozzie Smith on television for the first time ever (televised St. Louis Cardinals games were hard to come by in the Metroplex in the days before ESPN’s contract with MLB). I watched Cal Ripken, Jose Canseco, Don Mattingly, Darryl Strawberry–all the guys I’d only seen in images printed on cardboard–parade across the field. All those helmets and caps, all those jerseys and faces that you NEVER see on TV at the same time. It’s still why I love the All-Star Game, and even if I don’t catch every at-bat, I make sure to catch the 15 minutes of player and lineup introductions. After all, it’s not every day you see that rarest of baseball creature known as the “Toronto Blue Jay.”

Terry Steinbach of the A’s was the MVP, and for a short time I was convinced he must be the greatest player in baseball history (he wasn’t). I’ll bet I didn’t go to bed until 1 a.m., and my parents didn’t say a word (probably because they were parents, and were dead asleep).

If my memory seems particularly vivid, there’s probably a pretty good psychological reason for it. My family was in the process of moving from Texas to Missouri. Those times of great transition in our lives–moving, deaths, graduations, falling in love, divorce (I presume)–seem to add a nuclear reactor to the battery in our memories, don’t they? It doesn’t matter how old we are when they happen–in fact, I think childhood only accentuates the power. These memories are never entirely positive or entirely negative either; just so damn vivid. I remember a disproportionate number of details about that summer and the following fall as I went about making Ozark, Missouri my home. Hell, I remember more about those months than I do about last week.

I digress. But while I was outwardly cool with the idea of moving to southwest Missouri–it was, after all, where all of the rest of my family lived and I visited often–it was years before I realized just how big a deal moving had been for an only child in the third grade who had only ever known one school, one church, and had a little kid-crush on the girl across the street. Baseball is the blanket I wrapped myself in, because God knows we all need one at those times in our lives. I’m sure my parents were relieved it was something normal. Imagine trying to make that kind of change with a 16-year-old. *shudders*

I’ve watched 25 more All-Star Games (including the one that is playing in front of me right now, a convenient DVR having repalced the gigantic VHS of my youth). There was the one I watched at the McSalty’s Pizza bar with a friend in high school, acutely aware that I’d rather be at home watching it with my dad, but not nearly secure enough to admit it. There was the surrealistic tie in ’02, which I watched with my soon-to-be-bride in stunned silence into the wee hours of the morning after getting off the graveyard shift at the News-Leader. (To her credit, she stayed awake… it was that bizarre). Last year my brother-in-law scored family tickets to the Home Run Derby in Kansas City, and being in that All-Star atmosphere live is the coolest sporting spectacle I’ve ever been able to attend. There was Bo’s bomb in ’89, Wrigley’s lights in ’90, Carp starting in ’05, and St. Louis hosting in ’09. Most have been more exciting than that first game. I’m sure I missed or had to work though one or two of them along the way, but most All-Star Games I have watched at home or with friends, in various states of distraction or inebriation, one major life event or another swirling around me as I stopped for a few minutes to try and recapture the magic of that night in ’88. Sometimes I can almost do it.

And now, just like that, as I watch Jason Kipnis grab Pedro Alvarez’s popup to end this ’13 All-Star Game, a 3-0 victory for the American League (aka the bad guys), my second quarter-century of baseball fandom officially begins. I can’t wait for the next 25 All-Star Games. I wonder where I’ll watch them? And what will be going on in my life when I do?

Categories: Baseball, Navel Gazing

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

April 1, 2012 2 comments

I suppose it’s appropriate that the St. Louis Cardinals had one of the most insane off-seasons any World Series champion has ever had. Because without the intrigue of what a revamped lineup, a new regime in the dugout, and a new man on first base means for the Birds on the Bat, I’m not sure I could have gotten myself psyched for the 2012 season after the miracle that was October (and late September) of 2011.

But you know that story. That was a different year, and largely a different team. The Cardinals will be good this year, but a different kind of good: a different ace; a different manager; a different aging veteran in right field. Some interesting pieces remain, including an All-Star catcher, postseason-hero third baseman, and Matt Holliday.

But the Cardinals aren’t the only team in the NL Central, much less baseball, and as my access to satellite TV has increased, so has my appetite to see what other teams are about. So, for the first time, I’m sharing my thoughts on the entire league and making predictions. I’ve done this exercise since I was a kid on paper, but never online. But if you can’t write about the crap you like on a blog, why else do you have one?

Agree? Disagree? I’d love to know.

American League

East

1st Place: Tampa Bay Rays
It is possible for pitching to be overrated. I mean, the Atlanta Braves only won one World Series with the of the unarguably greatest pitchers of their generation. But they DID win 4 billion consecutive division titles, and I think that their rotation will be enough to take the Tampa Bay Rays to the top this year. The lineup is good with the potential for excellence, which should be enough.

2nd Place: New York Yankees*
This is, by and large, most people’s pick for the division, but I don’t see it. Perhaps it’s the curved lens of weighty expectations, but shouldn’t the great players the Yankees pay so much for be… well, greater? Robinson Cano is a stud and C.C. Sabathia is a future Hall of Famer, but Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Russell Martin? They don’t get me excited, though their numbers are fine. The test is the young pitching: If Ivan Nova, Michael Pineida and Phil Hughes come through, it’s a division title and (if injuries don’t decimate a deceptively old lineup) possibly a World Series. Here’s saying they won’t.

3rd Place: Boston Red Sox
It’s easy to be a hater, because where the Yankees inspire apathy in me the Red Sox inspire disdain. This is a team with potential but a lot of problems, and I’m not sure bringing Bobby Valentine into a clubhouse will ever constitute a soothing presence. Again, with health and performance, this is a World Series caliber club. But my guess is they’re going to be real glad Bud Selig added the second Wild Card come September, and even that may not be enough.

4th Place: Toronto Blue Jays
The Jays are the vogue pick to sneak into the playoffs, and with the expanded Wild Card it is not out of the realm of possibility. But you know what usually happens to the vogue pick? They finish .500 and the manager gets fired. I would LOVE to see Toronto crack the top three in this division; the team is interesting, were a juggernaut in my formative baseball years, and I LOVE that they went back to the ’80s-esque (different, but similar) unis. Love, love, love it. But your unis don’t get you into the playoffs, your lineup does, and the Jays are still a year away. Which in Canada is like a year and three quarters.

5th Place: Baltimore Orioles
Gawd, what a hot mess. No team has a prouder history but a bleaker future as long as Peter Angelos is the owner. A few players worth writing about, but why?

Central

1st Place: Detroit Tigers
It’s easy to get excited about the Tigers this year. They signed Prince Fielder, still have Miggy Cabrera, still run Justin Verlander out there every fifth day. That said, I don’t think the Tigers would win a single other division in baseball, not this year. Verlander is due to give up a few more homers this season and I predict Fielder will have more trouble adjusting to the AL than may believe (though he’ll probably prove me wrong). Most everyone else on the team is a wild card. The fact that they play in the AL Central saves the Motor City Kitties, but I don’t expect the waltz to the playoffs everyone else does.

2nd Place: Kansas City Royals
Someone has to finish second, right? Why not KC? They probably won’t have a winning record… but they might. The young batting talent is just to outstanding to ignore, and surely one of these years some semblance of a pitching staff will come together, right? There is energy in KC for the first time in a long time, and it might be enough to get these guys to second place. But as we all know, the pitching better get good enough to take advantage of Hosmer, Moustakas, et al in the next few years, or they’re going to bolt and it’s back to the blues for the Royals.

3rd Place: Chicago White Sox
Honestly, 2-5 in this division might as well be a grab bag; I go with the Royals truly only because I would really like to see it (and because of my man crush on Eric Hosmer). But oh yeah… the Sox. I think they’ll be better now that Robin Ventura has replaced Ozzie Guillen, but only marginally unless huge production comes from some absolutely unexpected places.

4th Place: Cleveland Indians
Tough team to peg. So I’m not going to try.

5th Place: Minnesota Twins
Tough to remember all the excitement from a few years go, what with the new ballpark and Joe Mauer and that other guy… oh yeah, Justin Morneau. If those two don’t bounce back soon I’m not sure they ever will, and if the Twins don’t make a showing this season it could be the end for longtime manager Ron Gardenhire, which would be sad.

West

1st Place: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
I hate to make this pick. Hate hate hate hate hate to make this pick. But look at that roster. Too deep, too much pitching, too much power. It’s the signing of C.J. Wilson to go with Jared Weaver, a ready-to-bounce-back Dan Haren and Ervin Santana, who might be the best of the bunch. And it’s manager Mike Scioscia. And yes, dammit, it’s the signing of Albert Pujols, who at least for a couple more years will be as good in the AL as he was in the NL, if not as happy (yes, I expect Surly Albert more frequently, if that’s possible). I’m over the loss, but that’s not to say I won’t relish his patented strained oblique sometime in mid-June.

2nd Place: Texas Rangers *
Best top-two of any division in baseball. I expect the Rangers to earn one of the AL’s Wild Cards if not take the division outright from the Angels. This is an excellent team that has learned how to win, and expects to. Still: Just a few too many pitching questions to pass the Angels. Plus, how could you NOT have a World Series hangover after that choke job.

3rd Place: Seattle Mariners
In a few years Seattle will be the new Tampa Bay, improving rapidly but unable to bypass the big dogs in its division. Patience, Mariners fans. Go climb a mountain or something.

4th Place: Oakland Athletics
Only two positive things to say about Oakland. 1.) They might move to San Jose some day. 2.) In 2013 Houston will be in their division. Until then, a risky contract to a defected Cuban will have to pass as excitement on the poor side of the Bay.

National League

East

1st Place: Philadelphia Phillies
Like the Tigers in the AL Central, the Phillies feel like a default pick despite not inspiring a lot of confidence. Ryan Howard is out for a while, Chase Utley is his usual dented self, Jimmy Rollins is getting his AARP card soon, and Placido Polanco died (okay, not really). But they do have Hunter Pence and a still-filthy starting pitching staff, and that ought to be enough to keep them on top of an improving division for another year. But if a pitcher gets injured… watch out.

2nd Place: Atlanta Braves *
Quietly, the Braves are building the most solid team in Atlanta since the late ’90s, which is saying something. The lineup is good enough to win the East, particularly if Jason Heyward bounces back from a down sophomore season. The pitching is good with the potential to be super, though you have to wonder how much their September collapse will eat at them–particularly a young bullpen–out of the gate. Wouldn’t be surprised to see them finish anywhere in the top three here.

3rd Place: Miami Marlins
Another up-and-coming team, Miami seems to be built of cheaper stuff–at least in the figurative since. In the literal sense they went on an off-season spending spree, signing Heath Bell, Mark Buehrle and Jose Reyes to big contracts to help appease the taxpayers of Dade County who footed the bill for their new retractable-roof stadium. We’ll see whether those were wise signing (I’ll guess “yes” “no” and “sort of” respectively), but there is undeniable excitement in Miami for the first time since the last time they bought a World Series. If things go south, though, it could be uglier than those hideous new uniforms, especially with Ozzie Guillen as their new manager.

4th Place: Washington Nationals
Stephen Strasburg is the game changer here. Unfortunately it’s just as easy to see him making fewer than 20 starts as it is to see him winning 20 games. The lineup is deceptively good (imagine if they’d signed Fielder) and getting better. And Bryce Harper waits in the wings. This is the NL East’s team of the future, but they’re a year away from making an upper-division jump. Maybe.

5th Place: New York Mets
I never thought I’d say this, but much like the New York Knicks, baseball is a more interesting place when the Mets are good. Or hell, at least decent. This team won’t be, but getting some stars back healthy, like Ike Davis and Johan Santana, or effective, like David Wright and Jason Bay, could put .500 within reach.

Central

1st Place: St. Louis Cardinals
As mentioned above, no World Series champion has ever had quite the offseason the Cards had. With a new manager and quite a bit of aging talent in the lineup, the potential is there for a significant dip. But the St. Louis bullpen is young and coming off a magical postseason run, and trading a newly healthy Adam Wainwright for a rapidly aging Chris Carpenter (out for at least a month with nerve problems) is still a net gain. Matt Holliday is Matt Holliday, so the key will be keeping Carlos Beltran, Lance Berkman and Rafael Furcal healthy enough to bridge the gap to 2014, when a host of young talent should be ready to step in.

2nd Place: Cincinnati Reds
Expect more heated series this year between Cincy and St. Louis. The Reds have a powerful lineup; if the pitching comes through they’ll be St. Louis’s main competition. Joey Votto in a contract year should scare every pitcher in the league, and a major acquisition at the deadline  is a real possibility.

3rd Place: Milwaukee Brewers
Their offseason was almost as rough as the Cardinals’ and they don’t have pretty new rings to wear to soothe the hurt. Prince Fielder is gone and Ryan Bruan is a suspected (if acquitted) doper. But the pitching is still nasty and the team still expects to win.

4th Place: Chicago Cubs
I’ll pencil in the Cubbies above the Pirates just because of new Cubs manager Dale Sveum and GM Theo Epstein. And because the Pirates are the Pirates. Things will get better, and quickly, in Chicago, but it probably won’t be this year. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was one of baseball’s best teams in the second half, though.

5th Place: Pittsburgh Pirates
At last year’s trade deadline, the Pirates were the darlings of baseball, within spitting distance of first place. By the end of the season they had lost nearly 90 games. There are some exciting young players here, but unfortunately almost none of them can pitch. Expect this season to look more like the August-September Buccos, and less like the June-July Buccos.

6th Place: Houston Astros
Appropriate that, in their last season in the National League (they move to the AL West in 2013), the Astros will probably be the last team in Major League history to finish in sixth place. This team is that bad. It’s a sorry condition for a once extremely proud franchise. Here’s hoping the future brightens in a new league.

West

1st Place: Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers take the bronze medal for tumultuous offseasons, but fortunately theirs was almost all good. With new ownership should come a good dose of security and a loosening of the purse strings. With Albert Pujols in the AL now, Matt Kemp might be the best player in the league, and Clayton Kershaw could repeat as Cy Young winner. In short, watch out for the Dodgers. If their fans start to notice, you’ll know something is up.

2nd Place: San Francisco Giants *
Too much pitching here to not finish near the top of the division, and if Buster Posey and Brandon Belt come back strong they could win it. A few good offseason pickups will help, but this team isn’t so different from the World Series winners of 2010.

3rd Place: Arizona Diamondbacks
Kind of hard to fathom that they were the division champs last year, but they were. A step backward seems in order, though it’s certainly no given. But they’ll need a few more surprises (and no nasty ones) in order to keep the rest of the NL West at bay this year.

4th Place: Colorado Rockies
Those baseball humidors must work: Gone are the days when it’s impossible to get excited about young pitching in Colorado. Fortunately, there’s still plenty of hitting, too. The Rocks might be a year or two away but they’re getting younger, which should eventually mean better.

5th Place: San Diego Padres
They shipped out most of their solid bullpen, and right at the moment I can’t name a single position player. Not a good sign. Still, this is definitely the best last-place team in baseball. Congrats!

Postseason Predictions:

AL Wild Card Game: Rangers over Yankees

AL Divisional Round: Rangers over Rays
AL Division Round: Angels over Tigers

AL Championship: Angels over Rangers

NL Wild Card Game: Giants over Braves

NL Divisional Round: Phillies over Giants
NL Divisional Round: Dodgers over Cardinals

NL Championship: Dodgers over Phillies

World Series: Dodgers over Angels

Categories: Baseball