Category:MLB
Posted on: July 29, 2012 1:00 am
 

Playoff Push Belies MLB Grind

The ‘dog days' of summer have arrived. The genesis of that phrase? I haven’t a clue. To tell ya’ the truth, sometimes I just don’t want to know the answer. Call it Information Age burn-out. Suffice to say, ‘dog days’ feels apropos come late July.

It’s that time in baseball when the pep & vigor of spring has vanished like a cool summer breeze. Players, managers and umpires start to dig deep into those reserves. Even a salary 20x the President’s won’t make a 162-game schedule feel any easier. It’s a grind.

The batsman who works the count long, keeping defenders out on the 100° field is a favorite of teammates. On the flip-side, if you’re out guarding the grass, it’s the pitcher who works fast, throws strikes and induces easy ‘cans o’ corn’ that you dearly admire.

This MLB season has been a bit of a mutt itself. Besides the early no-hitters that caused such a stir, there have been few special feats, record-paces or super teams to fawn over. And that’s fine. It means most games are in play and that’s good for fans.

The Feel Goods

New York Yankees

There are two kinds of sport franchise: the coasters and the go-getters. The pinstrippers are the Grade A, all-time getters of go. And when they’ve got rhythm, MLB smiles. Division rivals aren’t too thrilled about it but then most of them are real woofers this year. New guy Ichiro Suzuki spent his best (US) ball in Seattle but is a hit-genius.  Yanks hope he is 2012’s version of Lance Berkman. Absent LB, who batted a sizzling .423 in the Series, Cards would’ve been toast by June.

Washington Nationals

A contender in the nation’s Capital is the biggest story of 2012. Might stir memories for real old-timers of DC’s great ‘24 team, the Senators, when Bucky Harris, Goose Goslin, Sam Rice and Walter “Big Train” Johnson led them to a lone WS title. Harper & Strasburg (sound’s like an 1890s musical team) get all the ink, but direction of long-time Nat Ryan Zimmerman and legendary Davey Johnson stoke the fires that fuel this pleasant surprise.

Oakland Athletics

As Texas won’t take-charge and the talent-laden Halos need more help (Greinke), the A’s become relevant. Beyond that, their clover is just a nice summer graze. Signing Youkilis (Chi-Sox) for that vital 3B-spot would’ve bolstered playoff bid (Inge .202). Looking ahead, Cuban pick-up Yoenis Cespedes will star if he perfects patience at the plate. Caveat: Oakland’s unies are great but the wedding-gown white shoes, gotta’ go.

Atlanta Braves

Choppers make the list because they’re contenders, Ben Sheets is 3-0 and it’s Chipper Jones’ swan song season. Though sometimes cantankerous, no player in the years ‘95-04 was better all-around than Chipper. The fact he was a key cog on a perennial winner for all of his 19 seasons and retained a normal appearance, with strong, not gaudy stats in a time when PEDs raged, all make him a 1st-ballot Hall of Famer. One of the era’s best.

Dickey, Trumbo & Trout

Its been a storybook season so far for Mets' R.A. Dickey.  At 37, R.A. has re-invented himself with a wicked knuckleball and terrific numbers (13-2 / 2.97 / 3 CG), while the T & T boys, Mark Trumbo (.307 / 69 RBI / 27 HR) and Mike Trout (.354 / 75 R) have caught on quick in Anaheim as vets try to get it together.  Not to be over-looked, Halo Jered Weaver (13-1 / 2.26), Brewer Ryan Braun (.314 / 70 / 28) and comeback kid Giant Buster Posey (.315) are working on best-sellers themselves.  

Sad Sacks

Boston Red Sox

Could this be Curse II? Only if you believe in boogie monsters and campaign promises. But Beantown may be feeling the Karmic backlash. Not for 2011 meltdown. Those are as common today as over-paid contracts. Rather, for the collective hissy-fit in wake of the crash. In contrast, Spurs flame-out in this year’s NBA playoffs (vs OKC) was its biggest shocker, but in their grief, San Antonio sucks it up and nobody gets run outta’ town (Vaughn?  He got promoted in FLA).

Philadelphia Phillies

No bad karma here, just injury influenza (Howard / Halladay / Utley), though Fred Galvis’ PED suspension is salt in the wound. His light-bat, low run output (14) made him a non-factor. Max factor is low output from oft-injured Polanco (.255 / 27 R) and Jim Rollins (.253). Off-season pick-ups Papelbon (25 SV) and Pierre (.303) prevent total disaster.

Get Crack’in!

Detroit Tigers

Though neck & neck with the pale hose, I expected more from Detroit. If there’s a better batsman in MLB today than Mr. Cabrera (.328 / 82 RBI / 24 HR), I don‘t know who it is. As playoffs have not been strong-suit for the princely-paid Fielder, his less-than-hoped-for RS stats (.306 / 69 / 15) are a slight downer. Maybe a bigger problem is the absence of reliable 3 / 4 starters to take some burden off ace Verlander, Scherzer and busy bullpen.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Bucs pass critical marker in reaching / holding ten games over. That keeps them in the mix and keeps Reds from creating separation. But stars McCutchen and good-fit Burnett need help in this lean line-up or Pirates turn into pumpkins. Standings evoke memories of 70s Bucs’ team under Should-Be-HOF skipper Danny Murtaugh. Their battles with the Big Red Machine were some of baseball’s best. As for Reds, Votto loss is bearable, for a time, in middling National.

Milwaukee Brewers

Anyone thinking Brewers’ brass had hopes of contention in 2012 doesn’t know this franchise. When Miller Park opened in 2001, official word was that cost must first be recouped, then big bucks could be allotted. Ten years later, nada. Greinke commands a pretty penny (Angels) but has an arm you build around (Sabathia). The 1-2 punch of Braun & Fielder is history. Now plans to ‘youth-enize’ the roster. Whoopee. Can’t live off Molitor & Yount forever. Milwaukee, who had an original AL team (1901 / Orioles), deserves better but doesn’t seem to mind. And Green Bay? If Packers were dogging it, every pooch in Brown County would be on curfew (Devine ‘74).

Los Angeles Dodgers

LAD gets kudos for contending during Kemp’s absence and ace Kershaw’s imperfect year. The Hanley move has moxie but I question the smarts, given production fall-off (.251) and head-case hiccups. If Yankees are AL flagship franchise, boys in blue should be NL version, though St. Louis has a claim. Dodgers have coasted post-Lasorda and if Magic & friends feed the drift, dogged Halos will put a permanent & fitting stamp on the City of Angels. Can’t live off Koufax, Fernando, “Bulldog” & Scully forever.

Steven Keys
Posted on: June 23, 2012 4:07 pm
 

No-Hitters, No Wonder

Everybody’s talkin’ (Nilsson), ‘bout LeBron, R.A. Dickey and no-hitters. While Kevin Durant’s Finals fade is fodder for debate, not much more worthwhile to write about His Magnitude, Mr. James until the leaves start to turn.

As for the plethora of pitching gems, theories abound.

Next time you go to the ballpark, better hold on to that ticket stub for you could be in possession of a little piece of profitable history. In MLB 2012, no-hitters are happening with the frequency of an Oregon Ducks’ uniform change: weekly.

Some worry MLB is on a fast-track to becoming the “Hitless Wonder” League (’06 Sox), even turning as barren of scoring as the flop-fest that is soccer. I shudder to think.

But keep off that panic button, Biff. This has happened before. The early 90s saw back-to-back seasons of seven no-hitters each (‘90 & ‘91). You can call what’s happening today a ‘variant of normal,’ even if the final tally does hit double-digits. Maybe no.

The wealth of no-hitters this year shouldn‘t come as a shock to baseball observers.

Reason # 1 happens to be the elephant in the room: PEDs, or as we like to think, their demise. Though, with all the legal maneuvering from MLB and the Union, I’m not clear as to whether or not baseball’s even drawing blood for HGH testing this season as planned. A real shell game.

Suffice to say, the glory days of PED use should be over. Consider this present period to be one of adjustment for players and managers both.

Most think the big benefit from PEDs is power, the long-distance, as in home runs. Yes, that’s part of the payoff.

But the biggest advantage from juicing is bat-speed. Power doesn’t mean diddly if you can’t make contact. And putting bat-on-ball is a learned behavior, demonstrated so sweetly by laureates of the art, Ted Williams and Tony Gwynn.

Ever try hitting a 70-mph pitch? For us non-professionals it’s a 1-in-20 chance (Billy Crystal should be proud he even fouled-off a few in Yankees’ spring-camp a few years back). Then try hitting the real heat: 90 plus. Forget about it, Frank.

Reason # 2 for the surge in no-nos and low-lows (1-hitters): today’s home-run mind-set.

The round-tripper has been a fan favorite since the Bambino and the hot dog hit the scene. But when juicing became common-place in the 80s, most batters began swinging for the stands with reckless abandon. And more than a few managers (Leyland / La Russa) seemed pleased as punch, converts of the Earl Weaver school of thought: “Pitching, defense and the 3-run homer.”

Today, principles of hitting like on-base % and having ‘command of the strike zone’ get the snub: ‘Who cares with these biceps,’ still seems the overriding outlook of many a ballplayer in 2012.

It’s why the ‘Bud Selig Home Run Derby & Family Fun Show all-star Extravaganza’ has sadly become MLB’s biggest showcase of the season, bigger than even the fall classic.

Next time you watch a ball-game on TV take notice how non-selective, indiscriminate batters can be in the box, how many bad pitches they’ll flail at. I’m talking really bad.

Batters seem less patient-at-the-plate than their forefathers, though King Kelly and Larry Doby might just laugh at that observation. I’m picking up a trend where, if the batter doesn’t like first-call strike, he pouts, tanks the at-bat and then fumes when the umpire calls strike three. Makes you wonder how they ever made it to the Majors.

And it’s not like most hurlers in 2012 are wowing batters with their own command of the zone.

Sure, we have our masters of the mound (Verlander / Santana), but plenty of pitchers need Mapquest to find the plate these days. With today’s free-swinging, disco-dancing batsman, it doesn’t really matter. Throw the heat high and he’ll chase it.

And before we start talking about replacing the ‘men in black’ with machines (Valentine / Loney), players & managers should re-acquaint themselves with something called home plate and the strike zone it represents. Then get back to us on that robot thing, Bob.

It all makes contact hitters like Derek Jeter, Ichiro Suzuki and Al Pujols that much more special. These guys still remember the baseball adage they were taught as youngsters: A walk is as good as a hit. It’s not deep psychology, but the more selective you are, the better pitches you get. What do know, Turbo?

Playing baseball is a highly skilled profession. And it’s not without its dangers. But it ain’t rocket science, though, the knuckleball of Mets’ renaissance-man R.A. Dickey comes pretty darn close.

Steven Keys
Posted on: May 16, 2012 8:27 pm
Edited on: May 16, 2012 11:52 pm
 

Hack's 191: MLB's New 61

It wasn’t exactly the information age but then no one was complaining. Business ran on the Bell System and postage, while newspapers, radio and TV kept consumers current.

And though barely a blip on most people’s radar, a certain sports item was making headlines in the Big Apple that spring of 1961: Maris & Mantle and their pursuit of Babe Ruth’s hallowed single-season home run mark of 60.

Everyone loves a good race and as it heated-up it began to play in Peoria. The fact it involved a record held by the much loved Bambino made it all the more captivating. The emotions ran the gamut from petty resentment, to hopeful, to simply, ‘Can he do it!?’

Mickey would succumb to injuries (54), Roger achieved the unthinkable (61) and the debate ensued. As quaint as an asterisk seems today it nonetheless does show just how seriously everyone took the sport back in ‘61.

Even at the time, Roger’s milestone may not have been the greatest single-season feat in the annals of Major League Baseball. Likewise, extended streaks that were subject to official scoring (Joe D's 56) or personal discretion (Ripken) will often, upon close inspection, reveal a weak-link in their chains of greatness.

The game’s long, storied history is chock full of special achievements that can keep baseball aficionados debating for hours and even years.

A short list of some other notables:

· Boston Beaneater Hugh Duffy bats .440 and wins the NL Triple Crown in 1894;
· In the same season Billy Hamilton crosses home plate 196 times;
· Christy Mathewson wins 31, posts 1.27 ERA and throws 3 CG-SOs in 1905 WS;
· Ed Walsh wins 40 in 1908 (1.42 / 464 IN / 42 CG) on a White Sox team that batted just .224;
· Ruth’s 1921: .378 BA, 177 R, 16 3B, .846 SLG, 17 SB, 145 BB, 59 HR, 171 RBI, 457 TB;
· Cleveland Indian Joe Sewell strikes out a mere four times in 608 ABs in 1925;
· Rogers Hornsby wins his 2nd Triple Crown in 1925 batting .403 (.401 in 1922);
· AL Leader in HR, BB, R, SLG and OBP, Ted Williams hits .406 with style in 1941;
· Jackie Robinson joins Brooklyn to break baseball’s color barrier and wins ROY in 1947;
· In ‘62, KC Athletics’ Bill Fischer pitches 84.1 consecutive innings without walking a batter;
· Bob Gibson (22-9 / 1.12 / 13 SHO) & Denny McLain (31-6 / 28 CG) go pitch crazy in ‘68.
· Dodgers’ Orel Hershiser pitches 59 consecutive scoreless innings in 1988 in leading his team to a World Series title over the heavily-favored Athletics in five.

Nevertheless, Roger’s 61 became the crown jewel of baseball exploits. Like Ruth’s 60 it too became the holy grail for every big bopper in the game.

Ever since Yankee GM Ed Barrow snatched the Babe away from Boston in 1919, fans have thrilled at power-ball: goodbye spitters, dead-ball hitters and “Hit ‘em where they ain‘t” (Keeler),..hello lively ball, home run call and “Holy cow, he did it!” (Rizzuto).

If the stars aligned, both marks did invite some serious challenges: Foxx (58 / ‘32); Wilson (56 / ‘30); Greenberg (58 / ’38); Kiner (54 / ‘49); Griffey (56 / ‘97).

But it was that possibility which made the 61 enticing (and easy prey) for PED users. Juicers blew by the iconic record like it didn‘t even exist as fans and media went ga-ga over the Mark & Sammy show. The hypocrites could fill every stadium on the continent.

Baseball’s governors have themselves a real sticky-wicket: what to do about the Elias record book and Mr. Bonds’ tainted tally of 73?

Not generally known as bold-decision makers, Mr. Selig & friends will likely go on with the do-nothing approach. Regardless, Roger’s fabled 61 will never regain its former luster.

As such, Cub Hack Wilson’s mind-boggling RBI total of 191 (1930) has now become the new standard for single-season prowess, the new benchmark for baseball immortality.

Funny thing is, nobody knows it’s the new standard: not players, not fans, not the press.

Had he painted his masterpiece with the Yanks or John McGraw’s Giants, Gotham City scribes would’ve immortalized the fantastic feat in poetry and prose. As it stands, the media mecca of America will never pay homage to a record set by a Second City sultan.

Another reason Hack‘s mark is anonymous: so few have ever come close to matching it: Gehrig (184 / ‘31); Greenberg (183 / ‘37); Foxx (175 / ‘38). Even with advantages like DH (AL), body armor, night sky, 162 games, cortisone and lower mound, 153 (Davis / ’62) and 165 (Ramirez / ’99) are the closest anyone’s managed to get to the 191 in 50 years.

RBIs need two things: base-runners and a team-mentality.

Ruth ushered in homer-ball in the 1920s but those guys never forgot the real purpose of batting: score runs! Today’s Home Run Derby mindset sneers at on-base %. And then when the table is set, most batters and too many managers are fixated on going yard.

There is one more advantage the current player has over his ancestors that may help him best Hack’s 191: their single-minded, ambition to break records and join milestone clubs.

Given today’s ravenous appetite for home runs, Hacks outrageous RBI mark should remain unchallenged for the foreseeable future. That’s a good thing. Though, if Texas’ Josh Hamilton could ever stay healthy an entire season he might make it interesting.

Wilson’s record is a fitting reminder of a long lost era: before there was walk-off bunny-hop hysteria; before nighttime World Series put fans to sleep and a when the only records players cared about were the ones spinning on the RCA Victrola.

Steven Keys
Posted on: May 15, 2012 1:23 pm
Edited on: May 16, 2012 12:15 pm
 

Best Hot Dog Isn't Chic

Some people like ‘em piled high with pickle relish, onions or chili.

Others will top it off with sauerkraut for some Old World flavor.

Cheddar cheese & bacon are just the ticket for the Midwestern palate.

In the Southwest desert, eateries serve it up with a selection of hot sauces & peppers.

Me, I keep it simple: a bun, the star attraction, ketchup & mustard, yellow, to be exact. That highbrow stuff ain’t bad but it ain’t welcome on this entrée. Oh yeah, and a paper napkin. Mustard stains are murder.

Three, maybe four bites and I’m ready to roll.

It’s the great American hot dog. The nation’s favorite hand-held meal.

It says Uncle Sam like tortillas say Mexico and lutefisk says Norway.

Sorry, McDonalds, you set the standard in fast food but the hot dog still reigns supreme.

Though I’ve gotta’ say, that classic barbecue battle between the hamburger and hot dog may never be settled in the minds of backyard connoisseurs. Sometimes a burger (or burrito) can‘t be beat: a bit of pink in the middle, slice of raw onion, cheese melted on toasted bun, chips on the side (no kettle or home-style, please) and you’re in business.

So why such high praise for the hot dog?

Convenience, for starters. Is there anything easier on which to heap a helping of what you hanker than a frankfurter-on-bun?

Price: For home, an 8-pack of all-beef wieners will run you under five bucks. On the street, the smart vender lets you eat for around $3. And at the stadium, it’s the best buy on the menu where a 10-spot gets you a kiddie Coke and a plain hot dog.

Tradition: Making the scene at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, the dog’s popularity quickly spread. It proved the perfect fit for a burgeoning, on-the-move America and found a home at ball-parks & fairs from coast to coast. Demand grew so fast for the new staple it out-paced an embryonic federal regulatory scheme on mass-produced meat products, a safety gap soon exposed in Upton Sinclair’s watershed work The Jungle (‘06).

Today’s tube steak is a marvel of modern food processing. It easily meets a standard of high quality that makes it worthy of the consumer confidence shown by the millions of wieners devoured daily across the land.

But with fame comes attention, some of it good, some not so good.

Case in point: Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest.

That icon of American cuisine could not meet with a more demeaning demise than it does in this promotional sideshow conducted in Brooklyn every 4th of July. Putting aside the worldwide hunger issue that every gorge-contest scorns, washing down bread & meat with streams of water makes a disgusting mockery of the real hot dog eating experience.

Something else you never do with this culinary classic: turn it into a star. A clue is when the traveling food critic covers the subject dog with complimentary-condiments like “famous,” “extraordinary” and “unique“ (A Hot Dog Program / PBS / 3-12).”

The hot dog’s beauty, its essence lies in its succulent simplicity.

Pile it too high, get too creative or too persnickety (some hot dog havens won’t provide ketchup, chips, etcetera) and the dog becomes a status symbol in a culinary clique. Tasty enough, to be sure, but too highfalutin for this fan.

And like they say, location is everything.  Where you eat your red hot can make all the difference.

The baseball grounds is a hot dog lovers’ dreamland. There’s something special about the confluence of sights, spirits, sounds & smells at the ball-park that all combine to work a serious flavor enhancement where every bite becomes a savory delight.

But the best hot dog won’t be had at the game or that famous restaurant you’ve seen on TV. It’s where tubular treats come with all your favorite fixings like bean soup and dill pickles (Milwaukee’s Midgets). That’s right, the best frankfurter is in your own home.

So drive on by the Taco Bell tonight and leave the veggie-burger in the freezer. Reach in the back of the fridge and you’ll find ’em, always there and always good. The great American hot dog.

Bon appetit!

Steven Keys
Posted on: May 7, 2012 3:57 pm
Edited on: May 8, 2012 2:37 am
 

MVP Voting in Vogue

It’s a bit early in the baseball campaign to be writing about MVPs, though, that didn’t stop some this spring from doing just that. Not too many endeavors as frivolous as pre-season prognostications on likely, after-season award winners. But it’s a free country, fast becoming jobless, but free.

This piece isn’t about predictions nor intended to depreciate award winners of the past.

It’s about a bad standard many MVP voters are adopting before checking their ballots.

Today, more and more voters are making their choice by applying a team standard. Even when player-candidates have numbers that are easily differentiated, the player on the better team will take the trophy, regardless. A 'better' team can simply mean more victories but is more likely to be playoff-bound. No ifs, ands or bunts about it. It’s all very tidy and misguided.

I’d been hearing about this rigid rule in recent years but never paid it much mind. That was until last month when I was leafing through my backlog of periodicals and happened upon a compilation of final statistics for MLB 2011.

One thing jumped out. That was the DodgersMatt Kemp not winning the NL MVP.

The winner, Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun had a terrific season. And like that juror who’s heard inadmissibles during trial and instructed to disregard, I’ve tried to not let Braun’s two positive test results from 2011 color my view. Officially, his testosterone level was not twenty times higher than any ever recorded by MLB and he’s as clean as a whistle.

By August it was a two-man race in the National. And it was close, but not that close.

Even as one applies a team standard, Kemp should’ve taken the hardware. Using those stats that bear directly on club success (games, runs, RBIs, Fld % and sacrifices), the Dodgers’ star outfielder gets the nod:

Braun: G (150), SF (3), Fld%(.996 / 1E / 8A / 268 CH), runs (109) and RBIs (111);
Kemp: G (161), SF (7), Fld% (.986 / 5E / 11A / 361 CH), runs (115) and RBIs (126).

As long as the candidate has no PED-markers or Delmon-Milton tendencies, if he’s got the numbers, he gets the trophy. That’s a player performance standard. Simple & sound.

It’s a criterion in line with today’s stat-crazy fandom (fantasy), the baseball world’s long love affair with individual numbers and formed the basis for the earliest MVP accolade.

Starting in 1910 with a car conferment for highest BA (Chalmers / Wikipedia), the MVP has been part promotion and part prize, its goal couched in idyllic vagaries like “most important and useful player to the club and the League (Gillette & Palmer / “The ESPN”) and “the player who’s of greatest all-around service to his club (Newman / “One of a Kind”).” But popular perception has always been clearly & squarely focused on individual player output.

The MVP selection was never intended as a fashionable, feel-good party favor for writers as they pack their pens and board the baseball bandwagon for post-season play. Anyone given the privilege of casting-vote should have the requisite skill for finding fact or figure to distinguish close candidacies without the simple fall-back of better team record. Ugh.

If anything, shining statistically on a lesser team, where turmoil can reign and talent will beckon to opponents like a tourist in a Turkish bazaar (R. Steves), should garner more praise, more points from a voter who appreciates the full-flavor and nuance of the game.

For the first 60 years (1931) the BBWA, while giving no special favor to stars on pedestrian clubs, also never barred-the-gate to such men either. Cubs’ Ernie Banks is prime example, winning back-to-backs on bottom-feeders in the late 1950s (‘58 (72-82 / 5) & ‘59 (74-80 / 5)).

Some other non-PS recipients since the 50s include Shantz ‘52 (79-75 / 4); Burroughs ‘74 (84-76 / 2); Hernandez ‘79 (86-76 / 3); Murphy ‘83 (88-74 / 2); Dawson ‘87 (76-85 / 6); Schmidt ‘86 (86-75 / 2) and Yount ‘89 (81-81 / 4). Uncommon result, yes, but still, a real possibility.

With arrival of the 90s came the new, hoity-toity MVP standard. Now it was etched in stone: players on so-so clubs NEED NOT DREAM of an MVP. Cal Ripken ‘91 (67-95 / 6) and Larry Walker ‘97 (83-79 / 3) remain the last of a vanished breed (Baseball-reference.com).

Which is more laudable: riding the wave of success on a frontrunner with talent galore, or thriving in mediocrity by making the most of what you have? For many, it might be the latter as it speaks more to their own experience, their own vision of the American dream.

Playing on a contender (most MVPs) shouldn’t work a penalty on a candidate, but it shouldn’t work an advantage either and certainly not tip the scale and prove decisive in the vote. Along the same line, toiling on a cellar-dweller shouldn’t hurt the player who’s miraculously put together a stellar season against the odds.

Somebody’s gotta’ tell voters the MVP, in whatever sport, is not a team award.

Admittedly, it can get confusing these days, given the other troublesome trend where honorees feel compelled in their addresses to give credit to every man, woman & child they’ve ever encountered while taking none for themselves (Brees). You might want to plan ahead (S. Field / Oscars), but a measure of public, self-congratulation is acceptable.

In MLB, the team awards are called the Pennant (League) and Championship trophy.

Braun’s pivotal play for a division champ gave him the edge with voters (LAD 82-79 / 3). And look how that turned out. Brewers were the class of the Central and then proceed to flame-out in NLCS to a rival that squeaked into the PS (STL). The Braves win umpteen divisions from 1991-05 but only one WS crown. And these are fairly typical outcomes.

One then has to wonder, what’s the point of this better team standard when so many title aspirants prove to be paper-tigers, pretenders in the post-season? What exactly are these voters hanging their hats on anyway?

I take no joy in casting doubt on Ryan Braun’s MVP bestowment. Using the player performance standard, Braun’s numbers stack-up well against Kemp’s. Reasonable minds could then have differed on who the more deserving candidate was in 2011.

I’m trying to show the fallacy of the current, prevailing team criterion. It’s not just senseless, its proponents don’t even apply it correctly. Not with style, at any rate.

If today’s mass of voters were casting in the 1950s, Mr. Cub’s mantel would be as bare as Crash Davis’ (Bull Durham). And that’s what Annie Savoy would’ve called a sin in the “Church of Baseball (BD).” Amen.

Steven Keys
Posted on: April 30, 2012 2:27 pm
Edited on: May 1, 2012 12:11 am
 

When In Rome, Mr. Pujols

Change is good, so they say.

And ya’ know who likes change? Marketing people like change, so do wet babies, unhappy workers, anyone living near a skateboarder, panhandlers and free agents.  That's about it.

When Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols made the big change this off-season it wasn’t because they were unhappy campers. Quite the contrary. Both were much loved and rather cozy in their respective cities of Milwaukee and St. Louis. Big baseball towns.

They opted for change because they wanted some big change, as in moolah. They got it, bushel-baskets full of it, courtesy of the Detroit Tigers and Anaheim Angels, respectively.

Like that employee moving-on to greener pastures, Prince and Albert arrived at their new surroundings with high hopes and long ‘to-do’ lists.

Moving is never easy. First there's finding a new home, then things like utilities, drivers license, schools for kids, satellite hook-up and on and on and on.  And while you're still fretting over all that there's the new job.  That starts with finding the best route to the stadium, securing a parking spot, meeting & sizing-up new co-workers, setting-up your locker and schmoozing the local press.

One more task that's too often left off the ball-player's moving list but can prove as important as any other: learning the new League. In this case, the American.

It’s one thing to dabble on the other side (interleague, World Series, Home Run Derby & Family Fun Show all-star game), it’s another to live there, day in, day out.

And don’t be fooled by interleague play.

Ever since MLB broke with a near 100-year old tradition (1997) and expanded League competition to a two-week period in the regular-season, the casual fan discerns no big difference between the rival confederations.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Each League retains a distinct style of play and strategy. Nuances remain in how runs are manufactured, navigating the base paths, use of pitchers and even fielder placement.

Then there's the designated-hitter rule, by itself enough to make each League unique.

Never a fan of the DH, I’ve nonetheless come to accept it as a trademark of the Junior Circuit, just as much as its absence is a defining trait for the National. To the degree that interleague play has homogenized baseball, the competing DH policies remain a hallmark of the Major League game which shouldn’t be lost. And the only ones who seem to feign frustration at the current state are a handful of writers and $-interested parties.

And there are the players themselves.

Succeeding in a new League requires homework: learning new pitchers, hitters, managers and even umpires, scorers and grounds-keepers to which you’d be wise to get accustomed.

It’s all more than enough to keep the multi-millionaire ball-player busy in the off-season.

But in listening to Al Pujols in spring training I got the feeling that the former Redbird and World Series hero didn’t do his studies. When asked what he was doing differently to prepare for the big change his answer was essentially…nothing. Bad answer.

It’s good to be confident but a little practicality, humility never hurt anyone and goes a long way in helping transition and insure $200 million investments.

Here’s how things stand between the two titans as of this posting (4/30):

Fielder: 22 GS / 13 R / 25 H / 2 2B / 3 HR / 11 RBI / .444 SLG / .309 BA.
Pujols: 22 GS / 7 R / 19 H / 7 2B / 0 HR / 4 RBI / .295 SLG / .216 BA.

Fielder has two distinct advantages over Albert in the transition game: 1) father and former American slugging star Cecil Fielder, and 2) teammate Miguel Cabrera.

While a rift had developed between Prince and his father, recent word is that both are now on speaking terms (Detroit Free Press / “Cecil” / Schrader / 1-24). Though Dad downplays the significance of League difference (“If you’re a good hitter, you’re a good hitter” / DFP), I can’t imagine Cecil has not imparted some helpful & pointed words of advice.

And with a game-changer like Cabrera in the line-up, how nervous can you be? Miguel’s numbers: 22 GS / 15 R / 25 H / 7 HR / 20 RBI / .571 SLG / .298 BA. By contrast, in LA it’s Mark Trumbo who's surprisingly the current pace-setter for the struggling Halos (3 HR / 8 RBI / .304 BA).

But not to worry, Angels’ fans. Pujols’ bread & butter with the bat has always been two-baggers and in that department he’s doing just fine (7). It’s something to build on.

One name Pujols might keep in mind: Adam Dunn. Dunn was an RBI machine in the Senior Circuit for ten years (Reds / AZ / Nats). In his American League debut last season with Chicago he bottomed-out (11 HR / 42 RBI / .159 BA). He’s finding his mojo again in 2012 (22 GS / 11 R / 5 HR / 16 RBI) but exhibited the same nonchalance about League disparity.

Dunn cost the White Sox a pretty penny but Pujols cost a king’s ransom. Angels’ brass and fandom have little patience for a long learning-curve.

In the game of baseball, knowledge is power.

Steven Keys
Posted on: April 24, 2012 12:08 pm
 

Can Theo Raise Old Cubs Glory?

It’s become an annual rite of springtime across America.

It’s up there with packing away the sweaters, starting up the John Deere and digging out the neatsfoot oil for Mr. Rawlings.

When the early baseball chatter hits the national airwaves, topic will eventually turn to those loveable losers on Chicago’s north side and their infamous streak, the longest title-drought in professional sport (1908).

Though the absurdity of most streaks is easily exposed upon close inspection, they’re nonetheless a big deal in rounders (Ripken / Gehrig / DiMaggio / Hershiser). And this one’s a beaut.

Two caveats on the Cubs’ dry-spell:

1) The Bruins run-of-futility gives false impression it’s never been any different for this cuddly club. But that 1906-08 squad is arguably MLB’s best ever: the back-to-back titles, winning % (topping the As (’29-31), Yanks (‘26-28) & Reds (’74-76)), near un-hittable arms, fielding legends (Steinfeldt to Tinker to Evers to Chance) and all of ’em tough as nails.

I know what you’re thinking. Dropping a team as old as that into the discussion is about as tired as debating the gold standard (1896).

Just remember, today’s greats (Jordan / Belichick / Ali / Woods / Pujols) will one day become as faded as those champion Cubs. And when they do, those few who still remember will point to the ancient past.

2) The loveable losers may be fan favorites but are hardly bums. Besides having the most wins (10,311 / 1876) and fifth best percentage in history (.513), they’ve made the playoffs six times since their rebirth in ‘84 when network greed gave San Diego the decided edge.

Enter Theo Epstein. In late 2011 the GM wunderkind took his talents, as did skipper Terry Francona before him, out of a brooding Beantown where he’d brought bushels of bounty to the snake-bit franchise. Theo landed in the Windy City, birthplace of MLB.

What Epstein lacks in aged wisdom he makes up for with a baseball savvy that produced results quickly at Fenway. But his success in Boston was not your run-of-the-mill, win a World Series or two variety. He became the jinx-buster. That’s hallowed stuff.

If “fortune is ally to the brave (Olivier),” belief in curses can only be refuge for the chucklehead. Be that as it may, ESPN & friends are determined to persuade America that such gobbledygook exists, and so it does in the minds of many.

And that can include players. If Cubs rank & file believe Theo has mystique, a special ability to fashion title teams and overcome a curse, it may inspire their play.

Epstein will have the full backing of the Cubs new ownership (Ricketts) to construct a winner. But they’ve had loaded line-ups before (1984 / 2003), as the previous owner (Tribune) did its part to restore grandeur to this once powerful organization.

Theo can facilitate more than compilation of player & coaching talent. He can also help to restore a confidence to the home-dugout of the friendly-confines that’s been sorely lacking since Charlie Grimm was barking out directions in 1945.

Epstein may have the Midas touch but he ain’t no Zeus (Olivier). It’ll take time for Theo and new manager Dale Sveum to make their mark and make the Cubs pennant contenders once again.

They’ve already begun the purge process. Former ace turned nut-job Carlos Zambrano found a taker in Miami, while age & injury made the usually productive Aramis Ramirez expendable (Milwaukee) for a club embarking on a new era.

But with a slimmed-down NL Central (Fielder / Pujols), expanded playoffs and a post season trend where any participant can get hot and grab the pennant, even the 2012 Cubs can dream of playing in October and resurrecting past glory.

Steven Keys
 
 
 
 
The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com