Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Baseball drama then and now

There are plenty of dramatic moments in baseball history. September 28, 2011 doesn't come close to topping the list and doesn't deserve all the magic and allure attributed to it. I honestly think we do ourselves a disservice by so prominently highlighting the day that allegedly gave birth to the wildcard one game playoff.

Last night I watched Cardinals-Pirates on ESPN and it was a breathtaking night of baseball for me, so memorable that I found myself remembering how much September 28, 2011 captured the heart of the baseball nation, and then getting sort of mad over that dredged up memory.

That night will go down in history as quite possibly ushering in the double-wildcard era of MLB. I've heard sports yakkers muse about how Bud Selig wanted to recreate that night and set to work creating the wild card playoff. Just to refresh our memories, September 28, 2011 featured 2 games in the AL to decide the AL wildcard and 2 games in the NL to decide the NL wildcard. Boston and Tampa Bay were tied and St. Louis and Atlanta were tied going into the night. Each of the 4 games was on National TV and the whole Baseball world was watching breathlessly. Everyone talked afterward about how awesome it was. TB rallied against Mariano Rivera, while at Camden Yards, Jonathon Papelbon (everyone's favorite punching back this week) blew a save against the Orioles. St. Louis clobbered Houston early, then watched in fascination as Philadelphia stunned the Braves with a 9th inning comeback and won in 13 innings. Tampa Bay and St. Louis snatched the wildcards in a night of all-out frenzy that had all of MLB buzzing (not just then: yesterday, a Cubs blogger pointed out that 9/28/2011 is one reason why the Cubs are already in the postseason this year).

I remember that night as well as anyone else, and it was exciting, breathtaking even, especially in the AL with 2 almost simultaneous walk-offs.

Here's the thing: these 4 teams were fighting over a SECOND PLACE PRIZE -- a booby prize, if you will. Heck in the AL, they were literally breaking a tie for SECOND PLACE.

Tonight, I watched 2 teams scratching and clawing at each other, fighting over FIRST PLACE and a DIVISION TITLE. They were engaged in a battle to see who is the BEST team in their division, not SECOND BEST (sorry for all the shouting, but it really is what I feel like doing when I think about this).

And then I think of those late September dramatics that are practically impossible now. Like Toronto at Detroit, 1987 tied for first with a weekend series at Tiger stadium for all the marbles. The entire nation watched two teams fight it out for the AL East TITLE. Winner advances, loser goes home. Our hearts broke for Manuel Lee, playing in place of Tony Fernandez, who made 2 errors in the Friday game won by the Tigers 4-3. The Saturday contest clinched the title for the Tigers 3-2 in 12 innings. Both games were on NBC and I remember watching them both. And both teams finished with 96 wins or better (for good measure, the Tigers completed the sweep on Sunday to finish 98-64), not unlike this year's Cardinals and Pirates.

And all anyone would want to talk about today is how unfair it was back then that a team like the Blue Jays was kept out of the postseason while the relatively mediocre Twins got to play the Tigers in the ALCS, instead of talking about how breathtakingly exciting it was to watch that weekend series for all the AL East marbles.

Then there was the last weekend in September, 1973 with the Pirates, the Cardinals, and the Mets all fighting for first place in the NL East, and the Mets at Wrigley for a 4 games series (the Cubs weren't that far behind these 3; the NL East was extremely weak that year). As longtime Cardinals fans no doubt painfully recall, if the Cubs had taken care of business that weekend, and the Pirates had won their makeup game with San Diego, there could have been a 3-way tie for first at 81-81. The Cardinals had just taken a series from the Cubs and a series from the Phillies to end the season at .500. We all watched the Mets and Cubs get rained out on Friday and Saturday, then split a DH on Sunday. The Mets won the first game on Monday, making the final game of the series and Pittsburgh's trip out west unnecessary. Not the same high quality baseball as in 1987, but we still watched because only one team was going to emerge with the right to move on.

Go back even further and you find the final week of 1967 in the American League with Boston, Detroit, Chicago, and Minnesota all practically neck-and-neck with each other. The Twins and Red Sox jockeyed back and forth early in the week, setting up a weekend series at Fenway for all the marbles, while the White Sox and Tigers stayed right there as well. The Red Sox tied the Twins on Saturday the 31st setting up a one-game, winner take all contest for the AL pennant. As a White Sox fan, I know I was glued to the action the whole week, which was a treat for me because my White Sox weren't on TV much back then (). The Red Sox finished 92-70, the Twins and the Tigers 91-71, and the White Sox fell to 89-73. Funny, I don't remember anybody bitching about great teams being snubbed for the postseason. I was a kid back then, but still...

If I wanted to, I'm sure I could find tons more examples of great pennant race climaxes that captured the nation -- we all know about 1951 in the NL, don't we? -- because multiple teams were fighting it out for FIRST PLACE with everything on the line and not just for seeding.

I'm sorry, but September 28, 2011 will always be second-rate in the pennant-race drama sweepstakes for me.

As for the wild card era? Well, gee, let's look at the final weekend in 1996 with the Padres 1 game back of the Dodgers and a weekend series at Chavez Ravine to decide the NL West title... except, WAIT NO BOTH TEAMS WERE ALREADY IN (after the Padres beat the Dodgers that Friday night, that is, eliminating the Expos from wildcard contention). Tony Gwynn and company doubled down on Saturday to tie the Dodgers at 90-71 going into Sunday. I seem to recall both teams resting some of their regulars that day, but baseball-reference begs to differ (the Dodgers did start Wayne Kirby in CF instead of Steve Finley). However, my point is, nobody cared, because the teams had no reason to go hard against each other because they were both already slotted into the Division Series round. The winner of the Sunday game would host the Cardinals and the loser would travel to Atlanta. The game actually looks like it could have been exciting, the Padres winning 2-0 in 11 innings. I distinctly remember this weekend series being greeted by the rest of the baseball world with a collective yawn. Maybe we tuned in Friday to see the Padres clinch a playoff spot, but that's it.

Without the wild card, the entire world would have tuned in all weekend, and would have been captivated.

I'm probably cherry-picking, of course, and we still had 1995 in the AL West (Mariners-Angels tiebreaker game) after the Mariners lost 2 of 3 to the Rangers and the Angels won 2 of 3 from the A's. And as a White Sox fan, I'll never forget the blackout game on September 30, 2008. Here's the thing, though: in both cases, the division title up for grabs was the weakest division of the 3. If the wildcard had been in play for either of these two pairs of teams, it would have sapped all the excitement out of it. The 1973 NL East was pretty weak too, I know. But it was FIRST PLACE on the line and nothing else. What made those two tiebreaker games so dramatic and exciting is that the Twins and the Angels were done for the year afterwards because they lost. Meanwhile, the 1996 Dodgers got seeded anyway, even though they finished SECOND.

The 2nd wildcard has brought some of this back, and it makes me happy in a two-steps-backward-one-step-forward kind of way, but once again: both St. Louis and Pittsburgh are already locked in to the postseason, so it's not quite the same. And the winner of the one-game wildcard playoff will still be afforded an almost equal seeding in the postseason tournament. They'll have to sweat out that one-game playoff, yes, but then they get almost as many home games as any of the division winners. I know they will end up with a higher won-lost percentage than either New York or LA or SF (not by a lot, though).

But September 28, 2011 does not deserve to trump October 2nd, 1987. The earlier contest and all like it in the pre-wildcard era were far more dramatic than the day 2 wildcards were decided.

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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Chris Sale + Comerica Park = Stupidity, Episode 2

For the second year in a row, Chris Sale did something at Comerica Park, and benches cleared. This time it was directly a result of something he did. Last year he did something; 3 innings or so later, Luke Putkonen retaliated and then the benches cleared.

For the second year in a row, the most vexing part of the episode is what is said away from the field of play by non-combatants and by combatants after the game was over and cooler heads had supposedly prevailed.

What we know: in the 3rd inning, Sale struckout Victor Martinez and then waved his cap toward centerfield. In the 6th inning, he hit Martinez, Martinez glared at him all the way to first, Sale said something to him, and dugouts and bullpens emptied on the scene of the crime. The next batter doubled Martinez to 3rd, and Victor then scored on a sac-fly to tie the game at 1.

Here's something else we know, if we're thoughtful enough to contemplate things: whether Sale hit Martinez on purpose, what he was angry about (assuming for the moment it was on purpose), why Martinez was pissed, what was said between them -- all these things WILL NEVER BE KNOWN BY US because it all takes place in the context of baseball's "unwritten code", which basically says, "that's for us to know and you to wonder blindly about."

But claiming to know the unknowable is a staple of baseball fandom, so by all means, White Sox fans (and both sets of White Sox announcers) point indignantly at the scoreboard as clear and convincing evidence that it was absolutely an accident, because -- altogether now -- "the LAST THING he wants to do in this situation, blah, blah, blah..." The announcers and some fans double down by getting pissed at Martinez for glaring at Sale.

Pretend for the moment that it matters whether he did it on purpose. It has always amazed me how intelligent baseball commentators can watch grown men act like children and simultaneously ascribe rational motives to their actions. You mean to tell me no pitcher has ever lost his perspective on the mound to the point where the scoreboard doesn't matter to him anymore?????? REALLY???

It pains me to bring this up again, but I wrote an open letter to Dan Dickerson and Jim Price about this last year when Alexei Ramirez was the one pissed about being thrown at, only to be the target of the Tigers' announcers ire for having the temerity to be pissed about it. So, let me state this again:

IF I'M IN THE BATTER'S BOX AND YOU THROW AT ME, I'M ABSOLUTELY ALLOWED TO BE PISSED ABOUT IT!!!!

Now for Tigers' announcers and fans. With no material evidence to support it, Sale was accused of hitting Martinez because he was convinced someone was perched in the CF bleachers stealing signs (stealing signs by players is often provocation enough, for reasons passing understanding, but employing extralegal means would indeed be ethically questionable). It's one thing for Tigers' fans to jump to this conclusion (Victor himself claims ex-teammate Avi Garcia told him Sale was complaining about it -- and what, we're just supposed to trust Victor???). It's another for Tigers TV crew to assert this (amazingly enough, this time, it's Dickerson and Price who earn my kudos -- they along with Steve Stone, Hawk Harrelson, Ed Farmer, and Darrin Jackson concluded that Sale was pointing at the scoreboard, not CF bleachers). For the record, as long as everybody's slinging manure into the arena for us to swallow, Chris sale is allowed to offer his own contribution: he was pointing at a fan who was razzing him while he warmed up and it had NOTHING to do with stealing signs. Against that, the only thing we have is Scott Merkin's mlb.com report that after the game Sale met with Ventura and coaches for a 7 minute private meeting. The instigation was that the Tigers apparently let it be known what Martinez heard from Avisail Garcia.

And I'm allowed to speculate too. Here goes: ballplayers present and past love to tell us how stuff like this is great motivation. I'm entitled to wonder if Martinez feels much more like an invigorated warrior and much less like an injured party. After all, he struck out earlier, but has owned Chris Sale like almost no one (then again, he's owned MLB this year; right now he leads MLB in Runs Created per 27 outs according to MLB Player Batting Stats - 2014 (Sabermetric Stats)). The next batter doubled and they tied the score. Gee, the Tigers scored a run because of it, but by all means let's go supernova over Sale hitting Martinez LONG AFTER THE DUST HAS SETTLED. Not sure I buy it.

Let me be clear: I've said Martinez is absolutely allowed to be pissed -- when it happened. Obviously after order was restored, Martinez stayed in the game, and no one has said anything about him being injured. After the game is over (this happened in the 6th of a 9-inning game), I'm entitled to scoff at Martinez when he asserts that absolutely Sale hit him on purpose (again with no evidence to back it up other than the hearsay of a former teammate who is now with the White Sox). Just as I'm skeptical of Sale saying it was an accident, I'm skeptical of Martinez claiming it was on purpose.

Neither one of these players is saying any of this without an agenda behind it, to say nothing of the unwritten code which only they get to understand because the rest of us don't have the secret password. WE WILL NEVER KNOW WHY IT HAPPENED.

IF perchance Sale did do it on purpose, the Royals will want to have a pithy word with him because he picked a mighty fine time to do it. But I find his story more believable, especially in this day and age when fans interact so easily with players at the ballpark.

By the same token, Chris Sale, hear this: you plunked an opposing player. Minimally at least, you threatened his livelyhood. The fact that it was an accident is irrelevant. LET HIM GLARE, FOR GOD'S SAKE AND GET THE NEXT GUY OUT! In the heat of the moment, I have no idea what makes a pitcher get so defensive, but the fact remains that Sale served up a run aided largely by an extra base hit right after this episode. Might he have been better served to worry about the next hitter rather than an emotional reaction? I think so.

But most of all, I'm tired of the soap opera. I'm tired of being subjected to all the testosterone laden attitude mixed with belligerent defensiveness. I'm tired of the never-ending finger pointing. I'm tired of players, managers, ex-players condescendingly instructing me how I'm supposed to react to things like this. Mostly, I'm tired of being told that this is the way the game is supposed to be played - mind you, not in a helpful way, but in a "if you don't understand this, you're an idiot" way.

WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO UNDERSTAND, some unwritten code that nobody ever talks openly about because, ya know, it's UNWRITTEN. Yes, you played and I didn't, FINE. Just leave me out of it, will you please? Just know that whatever any of you say is going in one ear and out the other.

Keep the melodrama to yourselves, please. I prefer to watch baseball.

Thank you.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Consuming White Sox baseball on a holiday off-day

It helped that the White Sox were not playing on Labor Day for the first time in a long time. I finally ransacked my storage and retrieved some very special VHS tapes from 9 years ago. Believe it or not, while I recorded every game of the south-siders' 11-1 run to the title, I only sporadically watched them until the World Series. I actually took my Dad to game 2 of the World Series. We both braved the cold and rain all the way to Podsednik's unexpected walk-off blast. However, much of the ALDS and the ALCS I had literally never seen before. I knew much about both series, but I had not actually taken in some of the games.

As I watched, I found some really interesting things that I had not remembered.

ALDS against the Red Sox: I definitely remembered that Chris Berman did play-by-play. I think I probably knew that Rick Sutcliffe was in the booth with him. I did NOT remember that the third person in the booth was Mike Piazza. I was already over the whole Chris Berman schtick by then, and I found Sutcliffe annoying, but I have to say Piazza was very interesting to listen to throughout the series.

Game 1 (CWS 14 BOS 2): It was a mid-afternoon game, but I was at game 1 of San Diego vs. St. Louis watching the Cardinals come close to blowing an 8-0 lead. I probably got home part way through the game and I just don't remember watching it at all. For one thing, it was a blowout. Secondly, there was another game on.

One thing I always remembered about this game, but can no longer confirm was that as laudatory as Berman and Sutcliffe and Piazza were about the small-ball the White Sox played in the 1st inning (and generally throughout the series), the Red Sox play-by-play (which I sampled back when the 2005 archives were still available) were beside themselves in laughter when Iguchi bunted Podsednik to 2nd in the bottom of the 1st. This was the Theo Epstein Red Sox, the ones who went Billy "Moneyball" Beane one better. These were the folks who sneered at small-ball. I happen to share the same mindset, but I also cackled at their bravado, knowing how that game turned out. There was mild concern when they finally cashed in a couple of runs in one of the middle innings to make it 6-2, but it turned out to be nothing. After the fact, as a White Sox fan, I couldn't help but smile at the futility of their remarks. By the way, I know Joe Castiglione was the play-by-play guy (still is, I think), but for the life of me I can't remember who his sidekick was, and I've been trying to remember ever since. I'm pretty sure he wasn't there much past 2005.

Finally, it was fun to note a couple of Red Sox rookies in that series: one who played a half a season for the 2012 White Sox (Kevin Youkilis) but never got into the action (not even in the 14-2 blowout), and future snarling closer and human rain delay on the mound Jonathon Papelbon (who pitched a couple of times in middle relief).

Game 2 (CWS 5 BOS 4): I definitely watched this game as it was at night and back then the Cardinals were always the team that had the extra off day (Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday-Sunday-Tuesday). The Graffinino blunder has always stuck in my mind, obviously a watershed moment in that series. I had forgotten, however, that Bobby Jenks got himself a 2-inning save in that game, something that is almost unheard of just 9 years later.

Game 3 (CWS 5 BOS 3): This game I have watched many times, since it is included in the Box Set. At the time, I believe I got home in time to watch the delicious part when El Duque worked his wonderful magic to wriggle out of Damaso Marte's mess.

This game featured the only Red Sox home runs in the series, 1 by Papi and 2 by Manny. The 2nd Manny HR featured the signature "Let me undress first before I stroll to first" move that enrages all the old-school baseball fans. I don't remember hearing much about it back then. It's never bothered me all that much, but I can sort of understand it.

As I watched Pierczyinski score from 3rd in the top of the 9th on a perfectly executed squeeze bunt, I couldn't help note the extreme contrast to the 2014 White Sox featuring the faux Alexei Ramirez "I'm going to fool you now into thinking I'm going to bunt even though I know the whole world knows I can't bunt to save my life" move. The 2005 team was well-known for being able to execute the sacrifice bunt and other so-called "small ball" strategies. Since I have reconnected with the team of my youth, I have only known the utter futility of bunting, to the point that a few years ago, Ozzie Guillen was threatening to make everyone return to spring training for bunting class -- during the regular season.

Whenever I have recalled this series since then I have relished how my team literally cast a spell on the hapless defending champs. They came in overconfident and their game 1 starter Matt Clement (ex-Cub) was exposed in a horrible way. David Wells thought he could spin a gem and his teammates' offense would kick in to high gear, but a 2nd baseman started to turn a double-play before he had the ball in his glove and Tadihito Iguchi spanked a hanging curve ball, leaving only the work of two dazzling bullpens keeping the Red Sox one run short. Then, in the friendly confines of Fenway Park with Red Sox fan Berman in the booth, the magic of that place deserted them utterly and completely thanks to the hocus pocus of a Cuban virtuoso.

I really can't remember what I was feeling at the time. I had not spent the entire 80's and 90's and first part of the new millenium suffering with my team's futility. The truth is, I had largely abandoned them, looking in when they took on the Blue Jays in 1993, but never even bothering to watch one single inning as they embarrassed themselves against the 2000 wild card Mariners. I was too busy getting swept up in Cardinal fever. I never stopped rooting for them, but I didn't maintain the emotional attachment. It wasn't until I noticed their record in May of 2005 that I finally, like the prodigal son, returned home just in time for the party. I guess I simply tried to enjoy the experience, figuring I'd never get another chance.

ALCS against the Angels, beginning on Tuesday night. This series will, of course, live on forever in the hearts and minds of all White Sox fans. The thing is, I remember the dropped 3rd strike with 2 outs in the bottom of the 9th of game 2 so much that I never remembered one single thing that happened in this series prior to that moment. The 3 games in Anaheim over the weekend took place while I was at a conference. I was only able to watch a few innings on Friday and Saturday night, but I certainly remember the prowess that earned Paul Konerko the ALCS MVP award. On the other hand, the dropped 3rd strike was such an iconic moment sparking much discussion on-line and elsewhere that my mind has been blank with respect to all of game 1 and most of game 2.

One thing I definitely remembered: this series was on FOX, which means Joe Buck and Tim McCarver. One word: Ugh. I didn't remember that they were joined in the booth by the interim-retired Lou Piniella. Double-Ugh. Unlike Piazza, Sweet Lou was absolutely useless to me, offering me no depth of insight, and some of his pronouncements are, in hindsight, hilarious, coming right before events that utterly contradict what he just said.

Game 1 (LAA 3 CWS 2): As I watched this game, as if for the first time ever, I finally recognized my White Sox. Failed bunt attempts. Uribe mishandled a grounder. Other infield errors. A couple of unearned runs give Contreras the loss. Yeah, now THAT's the White Sox I've come to know and love masochistically these past several years. Much like the 2014 White Sox, the 2005 version made a very close game out of it after falling behind 3-0, but just couldn't quite close the deal. They looked a little like the team I'm used to seeing wilt under the pressure at the Metrodome (epitomized by an excruciating late September 2008 series there that took years off my life span).

Game 2 (CWS 2 LAA 1): More hijinks and a premonition of sorts in this game. Aaron Rowand belts a double down the right field line. Vlad "butterfingers" Guerrero takes 5 minutes to pick it up and fling it past two cutoff men and behind 3rd base down the left field line. Rowand slides head-first into 3rd, then after getting his bearings beats it for home plate but is gunned down easily. All that energy for nothing but an out. If Vlad hits the cutoff man, he's on 3rd available to score easily on a base hit or a sac-fly, but no, Vlad's mistake punishes Rowand instead. If only he doesn't get greedy, there may never have been any controversy to end this game.

Oh yeah, and there was a top half of a middle inning, where Buerhle and Pierczyinski were convinced they had struck out the batter to end the inning, but after consulting with his fellow umpires, Eddings ruled that the batter had foul tipped it, and AJ had failed to catch it on the fly. The ball had bounced in the dirt. Nothing came of the reprieve, mind you, but little did anyone realize what a premonition that would turn out to be.

One reason why I might not have remembered much about this game: Mark Buehrle was on the mound. The game absolutely seemed to fly by. I've since grown used to that, but it was impressive to see him breeze through the Angels for 9 innings like that on the grand stage that is October. Just that one measly mistake to Quinnlan, or there would have been no controversy. There were other times during the game when a top of the ninth ending to the game was just barely missed.

I also did not remember that the Angels' pitcher Jarrod Washburn was not 100% that night (and only lasted 4 2/3rds innings). Kelvim Escobar worked the final 3 innings and seriously deserved a better fate.

Now for what I absolutely remember watching: The dropped 3rd strike and the wackiness that followed. I distinctly remember arguing vociferously with fellow Sox fans (there was certainly no unanimity in favor of the call) that the ball absolutely bounced on the ground. I remember Eddings' tortured explanation that his raised fist was simply how he always signaled strike 3, never mind the arm straight out to his right, which is the typical umpire signal for calling the pitch a strike. And I remember how Josh Paul could not be expected to know that he had ruled a dropped 3rd strike. I along with thousands of others blamed the victim for not being absolutely sure (Kevin Kennedy did likewise on the post-game show, insisting that when he managed he always instructed his catchers on any pitch like that where there's the slightest chance it might have bounced on the ground to tag the batter just to be on the safe side). I also was prepared to remind anyone who needed it that there was no guarantee the Angels would have won the game, it only would have meant extra innings, so Eddings did not rob them of a win.

Having looked at it once again, I am no longer certain it bounced on the ground. It is impossible, even in the zoomed in close up, to distinguish the pocket of his catcher's mitt from the dirt behind home plate. Coupled with my conclusion years ago that Eddings made a confusing call and is to blame for misleading the catcher leads me now to conclude that this was truly LA's "Don Denkinger moment". They had every right to be pissed. Interestingly enough, 3 years later in an August Sunday afternoon contest televised on TNT, Joe Madden (then bench coach for the Angels, later manager of the TB Rays) was once again screwed by AJ Pierczyinski and Doug Eddings who this time was the 2nd base umpire and laughingly charged Jason Bartlett with interference after AJ, having gotten himself into a base-running pickle like the dunderhead that he is, went out of his way to initiate contact with the Rays' shortstop. That too led almost immediately to a walk-off win for the White Sox, and ultimately screwed the Minnesota Twins out of a division title (the Rays won the pennant that year). It's a small world.

Not too long after this game, some veteran sportswriter whose name and medium escapes me now, wrote about a little known aspect of that play. He described the chaos of Angels' fielders heading for the dugout, watching in amusement turned into bewilderment as the catcher with the punch-me face (just ask Michael Barrett) scampered to first with the ball harmlessly sitting near the mound. AJ had meekly rounded 1st, and this writer noticed that one of the fielders finally woke-up and planted himself on 2nd while another one picked up the ball, surmising that the guy with the guts of a burglar might well have stolen 2nd in addition to 1st if precaution hadn't been taken. As it turned out, this was immaterial since Ozuna ran for AJ and Crede took 2 strikes allowing Pablo to steal second anyway.

That White Sox magic had reasserted itself.

Game 3: (CWS 5 LAA 2). No sooner had Piniella mindlessly praised the maturity of Lackey, but Konerko launched a 2 run HR to LF, making it 3-0, in spite of McCarver's certainty that there was no momentum for the White Sox to build on from game 2. The number of hanging (and hurting) curve balls from Lackey in the first inning was plentiful. Meanwhile, Garland, who was supposed to be adversely affected by an over-abundance of strength due to an 11-day layoff, turned out to be the virtuoso du jour. This time it was the Angels who turned a double into an out at 3rd base with a multi-run deficit. Live by the sword, die by the sword.

Game 4: (CWS 8 LAA 2). My tape included the pregame show, in which Kevin Kennedy and Kenny Lofton were analyzing highlights from the most recent Astros win over the Cardinals (In an interview shown during Game 3, Ozzie Guillen spoke of his fondest wish to go up against his former manager LaRussa. Unfortunately, that would have to wait for interleague play in 2006 because Mark Mulder couldn't do his job in NLCS Game 6). In one segment, they proudly showed Yadier Molina demonstrating the most recent MLB object lesson: MAKE SURE YOU TAG THE BATTER BEFORE YOU HEAD FOR THE DUGOUT.

For some reason I always remembered Paul Konerko hitting 2 1st inning 3-run homers in LA. Obviously in game 3, it was a 2-run homer after Dye knocked in Podsednik with a base hit. I tend to conflate memories at times.

At any rate, once again, the mental midgets in the TV booth were talking about whether Podsednik should steal 3rd after Iguchi was knicked on the arm by a Santana inside pitch. Instead, Dye flew out to deep center and both runners moved up. I chuckled because I know that none of it would matter. Interestingly enough, Konerko could have been rung up on the 2-2 check swing. It was borderline. And the next pitch went over the border. Another hanging curve ball. Sage advice from Lou: "Santana needs to get out of this inning with minimal damage, then I think he'll settle down." Never change, Lou.

I'm also amused by Kevin Kennedy's unshakeable faith in the Angels to recover and make this a series. Of course, I'm not really being fair since I have the benefit of hindsight. That's not my point with all this critique of the talking heads. My point is this: every time they tried to prognosticate what was going to happen, the opposite happened. Maybe because prognosticating is really stupid. Kennedy was especially convinced that Vlad would find himself at the plate. I don't remember Guerrero's final stat line, but I do remember he was a complete bust in this series. Again, there's nothing wrong, per se, with him thinking Vlad's fortunes would change, although he didn't seem to offer anything more than a Bayesian mindset to back it up -- i.e., his luck HAS to change eventually, just because. Talk about your deep analysis. Speaking of which, how about this Sweet Lou gem: the reason why Benji Molina positions himself on one knee is to make sure Santana keeps the ball down. "Or maybe to HOPE that he keeps it down," McCarver helpfully corrects him.

The bottom of the 2nd and the top of the 3rd produced more controversy which I had completely forgotten. By the same token, it rings a bell, which tells me I did see it live. First in the bottom of the 2nd, with runners on 1st and 3rd and one out, Steve Finley bounced one to Iguchi who turned and threw to Uribe. The relay apparently just nipped Finley to end the inning and keep the score 3. Finley was gesturing angrily. I assumed he was claiming he beat the throw, which looked possible but hard to tell for sure. After the commercial break, FOX showed a different replay that revealed that as Finley swung, his bat hit Pierczynski's glove, which Joe Buck and Tim McCarver both pointed out should result in the bases loaded and 1 out instead of the end of the inning. By the way, this time the home plate ump was Ron Kulpa.

(I also could not help but note, even before I found about the catcher's interference, how final the umpire's call was then compared to now. Now, I'd have been bracing for the replay challenge, just on the out call at first. Interestingly enough, the TV booth and Mike Scioscia went to great length that weekend explaining why instant replay would be bad for baseball.)

One other thing noted by the 2nd replay: The reason why the throw apparently beat Finley to the base is because he didn't run all out down the line. He didn't because he was too busy gesturing at the home plate umpire about the catcher's interference. Even Joe Buck pointed out that the same sports writers who roasted Josh Paul for not tagging AJ would be roasting Finley for not beating the relay. McCarver made an interesting point: the dilemma for Finley is that if he busts it down the line, he sells the umpire on the idea that he made the right call. It's very difficult, he said, to not at least point out the omission to the umpire, perhaps hoping to sell him on that instead. I don't know if I buy that argument, but it is certainly thought provoking.

Then, Jermaine Dye led off the top of the 3rd with a grounder to future Sox SS Orlando Cabrera, who proceeded to sail his throw to first. Erstad leaped and grabbed it, came back down and tried the swipe tag. Dye was called safe. Erstad pleaded with the first base umpire that he had tagged him. FOX spent 0 seconds on this play, perhaps due to controversy fatigue. I did not see whether Dye's foot was already on the base, but it certainly looked possible that he did tag him with his glove.

Naturally, Dye stole second and scored on a single by Carl Everett. An inning later, AJ twisted the knife with a solo homer over the CF wall. "No controversy there," said Piniella, "Just a well hit fast ball."

Guerrero's slump in this ALCS was legendary, but Joe Buck also indicated that leadoff Chone Figgins was not doing much either.

Funniest play in this game was the 3rd out in the bottom of the 4th, when Crede got in Uribe's way after he fielded Guerrero's grounder. I wonder if that's when Juan decided that every ball hit to the left side of the infield belonged to him alone...

Meanwhile, the LA offense looked like it was starting to bust out in a couple of innings, but only had 2 runs to show for it.

Cultural note: America On-Line (who?) was still big enough back then to purchase ad time during big-time sporting events -- "Building a safer Internet". Ha ha.

More controversy, at least given lip-service in the booth, in the top of the 5th on one of the pickoff moves by reliever Scot Shields. Replays showed fairly clearly that Podsednik should have been called out (this umpire was Ed Rapuano). A pitch or two later, Scot stole 2nd fairly easily. On the other hand, he didn't advance to 3rd on a ball hit to Adam Kennedy. McCarver guessed that since it was kind of a line drive, Scot had to make sure it wasn't caught in the air. Konerko then drew the "locking the barn door after the horse has escaped" intentional walk. No worries, though. Everett's single to left easily scored Podsednik.

In the top of the 6th, Joe Buck became concerned about all the White Sox players who hadn't yet seen any action in the ALCS, so he read out all the names for the benefit of family and friends who might be watching. They had recounted that Pablo Ozuna had pinch-run twice and Neal Cotts had pitched 2/3rds of an inning. Those were the ONLY moves Ozzie Guillen had to make so far. Lou "Capt. Obvious" Piniella immediately surmised that the White Sox bullpen will see some action in this game. Tee hee.

More controversy in top of 7th: it looked to me like a whole lot of nothing. Randy Marsh could have called Podsednik out on his 2nd steal attempt of the night, but to me the replay was less than conclusive and nobody mentioned anything about the Angels arguing the call. Then when Dye flew out to deep RF, Podsednik decided to tag up and take 3rd. Vlad's throw overshot the base. Figgins had to back up to catch it and keep Podsednik from thinking about going for home, and the 3rd base umpire had to backpedal to stay out of his way. They barely touched, but Joe Buck: "Now Figgins has to push the umpire out of the way to catch that ball." By this time, the FOX booth was milking the umpire controversy for all it was worth. Of course, another story line joined in on the fun at about the same time: "The rally monkey is LONG overdue... The only ones getting any reaction from these Angels fans are the umpires."

In the top of the 8th, Pierczynski struck out on a ball in the dirt. Molina picked up the ball and tagged AJ. The crowd went wild. FOX of course picked up on it. That crowd ecstasy was short-lived as Crede smashed one down the LF line to score 2 and break it wide open.

In the bottom of the 8th, the White Sox were bitten by lack of tolerance for the so-called "neighborhood play" at 2nd base. After a leadoff base-hit, a grounder to 3rd seemed to erase the base runner in a 5-4-3 DP, but Iguchi never touched the base. The White Sox argued, much like they argued in April or May when Crede was denied 1st base because he had failed to avoid the HBP. It was not so much that it was the wrong call, but simply that "it's NEVER CALLED." Later, Cabrera checked his swung (so said Ron Kulpa), but he could have been wrung up on it. No worries, a long fly ball ended the inning, and FOX went to commercial break with music from Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. So clever.

In the postgame, Chris Myers tried to get AJ to comment on the missed catcher's interference, and it sounded like the sound of that interview had been picked up on the stadium speakers.

Game 5 (CWS 6 LAA 3): The pregame show reminded me that the NLCS had its share of umpire controversy. Phil Cuzzi was behind the plate at Minute Maid Park for game 4 and apparently had a bad night. Both LaRussa and Edmonds got tossed. There were a couple of plays on the bases that looked like they easily could been overturned on appeal today. Of course there was also an Albert Pujols TOOTBLAN in the 9th that helped keep the Cardinals on the losing end. Phil Cuzzi, you'll recall, is the guy who looked at Joe Mauer's double at Yankee Stadium (2009 or 2010) and called it foul because he was ... cross-eyed?

Thanks to Lou Piniella, we now know that the forkball Jose Contreras throws is called "Senor Tumbelina" or the Cuban forkball. Seriously, where else can you pick up gems like this? The White Sox did threaten to score in the first, making me question my recollection that in this game the Angels scored first. However, they came up empty. In the second they threatened again. Rowand doubled just barely fair down the RF line, and AJ hammered a bunt into the ground to advance him to 3rd, as if Ozzie was bound and determined to score first. Sure enough, Crede's sac fly scored Rowand. But certainly a more pedestrian way for the Sox to take the first lead.

In the bottom of the 3rd, Contreras and Uribe messed up the daylight play trying to pick off Juan Rivera, who advanced for free to 3rd. Kennedy, who Joe Buck speculated was up there to bunt, singled to LF to tie the score. I was sure that the Angels held a lead in this game, and now it looked like I might be right. Figgins moved him to second on a sac bunt. A passed ball moved him to 3rd. Anderson walked on 4 pitches. We were then treated to the Vlad Guerrero highlights to the tune of "Same old song and dance". Sure enough, he grounded to Uribe to end the inning. Once again, though the Angels tied the game, offense was still a bit like pushing spaghetti up a hill for them. 2 smoking line drives landing in Joe Crede's glove didn't help.

In the 5th inning Dye singled home Uribe from second, chasing Byrd from the game and once again taking the lead. Konerko scared the crap out of the fans by driving Rivera to the warning track, but Juan gathered in his deep fly ball to end the inning with only 1 run scored.

That lead didn't last long. Kennedy led off with a single. On a hit-and-run, Figgins doubled into the RF corner. An Angels fan reached over the wall and grabbed it, but this time Scioscia convinced the umpires to discuss the discretionary choice they have to award home plate anyway, which they did. Figgins remained at 2nd, leaving Guerrero as the only key element of the lineup with only 1 hit in the series. Cabrera's high chopper moved Figgins to 3rd. Garrett Anderson drove Dye to the warning track and Figgins trotted home to give the Angels their first lead since game 1, confirming my recollection. Sure enough, Vlad was the rally killer once again. However, Scot Shields masterfully preserved the lead in the 6th.

But Contreras responded with a shutdown inning of his own, and Crede led off the 7th with a game tying homer over the LF fence off Kelvim Escobar. And now I'm thinking that was the one and only lead the Angels would get in this game. He did manage to limit the damage to that homer, in spite of Podsednik's walk and steal of 2nd.

Contreras shut them down as well in the 7th. Escobar seemed to have the 8th well in hand until yet another weird play in which AJ Pierczynski participated. He struck out Konerko and Everett, but his 3-2 pitch to Aaron Rowand missed the strike zone. Escobar was so distracted with Rowand that he earned a visit from pitching coach Bud Black. Refocused, he induced AJ to slap one up the middle and wackiness ensued. It actually bounced off Escobar toward the White Sox dugout. In the confusion, Escobar grabbed the ball with his hand and tagged AJ with his glove,then threw to first but too late. As if to compensate for all the times they screwed the Angels, the first base umpire called him out and the Angels headed toward the dugout. Ozzie stormed out and got the first base ump to ask for help, and sure enough the call was overturned. Scioscia (after protesting at length, no doubt out of sheer frustration built up over the entire series) went to K-Rod to hold the line, but Crede slapped one up the middle that didn't go through, but it was too tough for Kennedy to try for an out anywhere besides home and that throw was too late (it helped that it was 3-2 count, so Rowand was off with the pitch). K-Rod proceeded to walk Uribe, which is always an anomaly, but he retired Podsednik to limit the damage. The Sox had regained the lead again, for good I think. A FOX graphic stated the Crede was .353 with 2 outs and runners in scoring position this postseason. Talk about prescient.

I had forgotten the distinctive grip that Contreras employed to throw his special pitch. You could see it on camera before he put the ball in his glove. Those must have been very strong fingers. He had an uneventful 8th, once again besting Guerrero to end the inning. Boy the Sox really had his number. Nothing but ground balls to infielders most of the time.

During the 9th inning, the FOX cameras caught the White Sox suite, showing us Jerry Reinsdorf and friends getting ready to celebrate. A Sox fan I knew on-line told us that the entire front office, down to the lowest staff member got a free all-expenses paid trip to Houston during the World Series, to say nothing of getting their own WS ring in 2006. Meanwhile, K-Rod walked Iguchi and seemed to lose control according to Joe Buck. Iguchi managed to steal 2nd (though only because Kennedy had the ball knocked out of his glove). According to Joe Buck, the official scorer gave Kennedy an error. K-Rod proceeded to walk Dye as well.

Trivia (via FOX): the last time the White Sox had 4 complete games in a row was August of 1974. Wilbur Wood, Jim Kaat, Bart Johnson, and ... you guessed it, Wilbur Wood again.

Konerko drove one over Vlad's head off the wall to score Iguchi and the Sox had an insurance run with no outs. I remember K-Rod walking a lot of guys and striking out a lot of guys, but I don't remember him giving up a lot of hits. He struck out Everett, but Rowand drove a deep fly to RF. Vlad's throw was offline allowing Dye to score, but Konerko was out at 3rd to end the inning.

Contreras had a ho-hum bottom of the 9th. Prior to the last out, FOX treated us to highlights of September 22nd, 1959 in Cleveland (to the strains of "Go Go White Sox!"). A sweet play by Uribe, a bloop that Rowand played perfectly, and an easy one hopper to Konerko who was already playing close to the base. The postgame footage included players filing into the locker room receiving high-fives from a tall gray-haired man. In spite of the fact that I only saw the back of his head, there's no doubt in my mind it was Ed Farmer, Jon Rooney's radio sidekick on ESPN 1000.

I found it odd that Gene Autry's wife was the honorary presenter of the American League championship trophy. Autry used to be the owner of the Angels, if I'm not mistaken. The broadcast booth made the observation that is certainly striking: The entire weekend in LA, Ozzie made 0 substitutions. All 3 complete games and in all 3 games the same starting lineup played the entire 9 innings. And the World Series was not scheduled to start for 6 days. Jon Garland had 11 days of rest before he started game 3 of the ALCS. Jenks, Hermansen, El Duque, Marte, Politte, Vizcaino all would have at least 12 days of rest before they would pitch again.

If the running narrative of the series is to be believed, I think it is fair to conclude that the Angels came undone for some reason. There were several possible causes: (1) though it didn't show in game 1, the fact that they were extended by their series with the Yankees may have caught up with them eventually, (2) the fact that Bartolo Colon was injured in game 5 of the ALDS and was unavailable for the ALCS stretched their rotation a little thin, (3) they were rocked repeatedly by some very questionable umpiring at crucial times. Maybe there are other reasons. Having watched the entire series, all I can see is that the story I was hearing from the booth did not match the story that was being told on the field. They did not look like the Angels I remember, except for game 1.

The "luck" continued in the World Series. I'm not going to go through the whole thing because I've already watched the World Series dozens of times. I watched every game live, so I've already been down memory lane dozens of times. This was the first time I sat down and watched the entire ALDS and ALCS. But to perpetuate the theme that Sox had a magical year, there was Biggio flubbing an easy popup allowing a run or two to score, there was the alleged phantom HBP on Dye in game 2 that was followed by Konerko's grand slam off Qualls. Oh by the way, there was also an Astro double off the wall in game 3 that was ruled a homer, so it's not true that every single break went the Sox' way. There was the HBP of Crede in game 3 that set off some sparks between the two dugouts. There was Podsednik's unlikely homer off Lidge. There was Blum's homer in the 14th inning and Phil Garner's tantrum in the dugout. And last, but not least, if it was 2014, we might still be playing this World Series, because the final out in game 4 would have been reviewed on replay, that's how close it was. In short, the White Sox were very good, but they also were very lucky.

It actually took me a week to get through it all, but it was time well spent.

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Sunday, March 30, 2014

An ode to Mid-Majority and it's trail blazer, Kyle Whelliston

Mid-Majority's 10 year adventure as a website is coming to an end tomorrow night. I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to participate. I was born and raised a sports fan. I have gone through several phases of fandom in my life and today at the ripe old age of 56, I still have a lot to learn, but I have been blessed by Kyle's sharing of his sports journey with us. This post is my attempt to express how much I appreciate the experience.

I was brought up to be a sports fan from the start. Born in Northwest Indiana, long before people started calling it "The Region", I was raised to be a Chicago White Sox fan. Which, of course, means I was raised to despise the Cubs, but that's another conversation for another time. Bears, Blackhawks, and Bulls came later in my teens, but as far as I know, the only sporting events my Dad and his brothers took me to were White Sox games at Comiskey Park.

Being an innocent child, I didn't care about competitive balance, the endurance of pitching arms, the wisdom of bunting in the early innings, bean-ball wars, or the evils of the reserve clause. All I cared about was watching players in uniforms do amazing things with bat and ball, learning their names, and hoping I could watch them play for my team forever. I cried when the Sox traded Tommie Agee between 1967 and 1968. As I reached my first decade on this earth, I added pennant races to the list of things that kept my attention.

As for participation, from an early age, soccer was my game. Sure, we played 5 dollars in our subdivision, but I never found a sandlot somewhere to be the 60's version of Smalls. During recess at Immanuel Lutheran School in Valparaiso, Indiana, the sport of choice was soccer, and I remember myself being widely acclaimed as one of the best goalies in our class. I absolutely remember feeling a sense of pride about it. I may have just been hearing what I wanted to hear -- maybe I was one of the few idiots to volunteer for the position. But I remember doing a decent job for a 3rd grader.

As I grew older, I fell out of the in crowd and there wasn't as much call for me to participate in sports. I remember playing little league, but not for very long. But there was one sport I latched on to like no other sport before or since: basketball.

In the 60's and 70's in northwest Indiana? This could only mean one thing. Long before there was anything called "March Madness", I was into "Hoosier Hysteria", otherwise known as Indiana High School Basketball. My mom worked for NIPSCO (Northern Indiana Public Service Company) and we always used to get a big wall poster with the field of 64 bracket on it. I always pasted one on my bedroom door and filled it out when all the sectionals were over, and I always tried to listen to the local games on the radio, when my parents weren't taking me to Boucher Gym to see the likes of Joe Hill (later known as Joe Otis) play for the greatest basketball coach I have ever known, Virgil Sweet. I attended his basketball camps all 4 years they were available, learning among other things the proper way to shoot free throws. For reasons unknown to me at the time, there was something about basketball that got under my skin. There was a court across the street from my house, and every day after school I would go there and play H-O-R-S-E against myself (unfortunately, being a loner by then, I didn't tend to have a friend to play with). Like lots of kids, I would fantasize about hitting the winning shot in a real game. Some part of me dreamed of making that a reality. But the rest of me wasn't very committed to that dream.

I tried out for basketball in 7th grade but wasn't good enough. So I tried again in 8th grade. I actually had transferred to a junior high school in the public system after the 6th grade because my Dad felt the sports opportunities were better at Ben Franklin Junior High. In 8th grade, there weren't enough to make cuts, so I made the team by default. I remember scoring a point or two during the season, enjoying wearing a tie to school (being "special", but I was what the kids today call "the human victory cigar" -- i.e., the last man on the depth chart. In 9th grade, there were a couple of cuts but I still made it. Fred Mitchell, who would later become varsity head coach at Chesterton High School, saw something in me that I couldn't see in myself. I remember a couple of brief flashes where I showed some spirit. I remember being an annoyance to my teammates. I remember being pulled from a game because, as someone told me later, I looked like I was "about to pee my pants." I remember for once in my life standing up for myself in practice and earning the respect of my coach who stood up for me. And I remember parlaying that into absolutely nothing but kidding myself, thinking the dream was still alive. After 10th grade, it fell to Dale Ciciora and my scout master Dave Glass to talk sense into me. And it took me until my 30s to realize that I never committed to the game of basketball. I just liked the idea of being on a team and wearing a uniform. I was an imposter. I was meant for some other field of play than the basketball court.

In high school, I remember watching Notre Dame end UCLAs 88 game winning streak one Saturday afternoon, then traveling with the varsity down to Lafayette to watch Valpo High take on Lafayette Jefferson that evening with their twin tower front court, and Coach Sweet reminding his guys how the Irish guards disrupted Wooden's behemoths. Valpo didn't fare very well that night, as I recall, trying to duplicate the effort.

Several years after I graduated from Rose-Hulman with a BS in Computer Science and got a job with McDonnell Douglas in St. Louis, Hank Gathers, Bo Kimble, Tom "Human Bruise" Peabody, Jeff Fryer, Per Stuemer, and friends captivated me as they did a lot of people, playing a reckless but highly entertaining form of basketball that took the nation by storm. They were unconventional, finally taken down by the UNLV Runnin' Rebels in the Elite Eight. Soon thereafter, Paul Westhead moved on to other parts and LMU basketball dropped off everyone's radar screens, but it left a taste in my mouth that made me thirsty for more excitement. On my 36th birthday, my Dad took me to the IHSAA Final Four in Indianapolis to watch Valpo High compete for the state championship. A certain young man played on that team who is now well known to the world by the name of Bryce Drew. It was my alma mater's first ever appearance in the state championship game for basketball (we won the state football championship my senior year). My reward for jumping on the bandwagon at the most opportune time? Valpo blew a 10 point lead with less than 3:00 to go and lost the title game in overtime. And yet I turned to my Dad and told him this was the best birthday present I ever got. A few years later, Bryce managed to find the magic, and as you can imagine, I've been a Valpo fan ever since.

It seems trivial now, but I remember being impressed watching two teams of high schoolers sacrifice their bodies diving for loose balls and boxing each other out, expending all their energy, then after one blows a lead and loses in OT, they both line up and shake hands with each other (and it was more than just a perfunctory ritual). Kids who were opponents suddenly become comrades. It's a simple thing, but it is beautiful.

20 years later, I realize why it impresses me so: I still have just enough of the little kid in me. That kid who never really got what the game was all about, he just wanted to wear the uniform and have everything turn out great. He loved to dream the dream but didn't have the guts to work to make it happen. He wanted to have his cake and eat it too. And even now, he's in there, wanting his team to win and not understanding when they don't. He could never shake hands with an opponent who beat him. As a fan sitting in the stands, he's pissed the other team beat his team.

And last Sunday, he was pissed that Kentucky beat Wichita State. He didn't want to understand that it was a great, classic game that will probably show up on ESPN Classic for years to come. He wants to blame the refs or the selection committee or the unfair system by which Bill Self can -- with impunity, mind you -- refuse to play Gregg Marshall's team because "there's nothing to gain and everything to lose". Mostly he wants to jump into Doc Brown's DeLorean and find some way to change history (making that layup by Cleanthony Early late in the game might be all it takes). He feels cheated out of what's right.

To be sure, "he" no longer is in charge of my life, but I still feel that little kid in me. That "kid" fumes watching the Shockers having to shake hands with the Wildcats and congratulate them for winning.

Which is why I was so transfixed watching both post-game press conferences later, seeing a bunch of grown men who had to hurt inside being so mature and yet so genuine. And then something happened that hasn't for me in quite awhile: I actually watched Kentucky play Louisville in the Sweet Sixteen. Understand: for 10 years now, I've *only* ever watched NCAA tourney games that involved at least one mid-major. I'm not sure exactly why, but I can always think of several plausible reasons which stem from that little kid inside me who hates how teams like Kentucky have all kinds of built-in advantages over the smaller schools and who still fumed over all the pre-tourney grousing about Wichita State getting a 1 seed.

These college athletes take losing and injustice a lot better than I do, that's for sure.

And I am drawn to this game they play in ways I am still trying to understand. I'm not much of a basketball analyst, even as just a fan. I can spot bad free throw shooting form (thank you, Coach Sweet!), and I can get by identifying bad passing form or failure to box out, but critiquing strategy or substitutions or coaching is beyond me. I'm not sure I care all that much about improving that. I have little trouble enjoying a basketball game -- as long as my team wins or there's more games left on their schedule. But just as I never found the soul of the game as a kid player, I'm still searching for the soul of the game as an adult fan.

That's not what drew me to The Mid-Majority, but I find that I've been helped all the same to understand the game of basketball better. I was drawn there as a place that talked about all the teams that do not have the exposure and the advantages of the big schools. Since I am a fan of one of those schools, Kyle's website has felt like home to me. But, as U2 once sang, even though I am a believer, "I still haven't found what I'm looking for." I still have a lot to learn, even though I spent seasons VIII and IX (2011-2012 and 2012-2013) regularly contributing to the website (though -- please -- not even close to the contribution made by our season X traveler, Ray Curren), I had to be reminded this year that at the end of season IX, Kyle renounced the very mantras that I had taken to heart ("It always ends in a loss", "Our Game always hurts you"). The very fact that these things are still experientially true for me tells me that I still have things to learn. I still haven't discovered the real beauty of Our Game, though I probably have glimpsed it here and there. I feel like I found a way to appreciate the Wichita State-Kentucky game just for how special it was, though I kick myself for not actually going to the game (I live in St. Louis for crying out loud).

What kept me a Mid-Majority fan and then member was the relentless pursuit of basketball games between teams toiling in relative obscurity, as well as the clear-eyed consistent critique of what generally passes as "coverage" dished out by the national media. Mostly what kept me on board was great writing, which I aspire to. Even though I missed writing for the website this year, Peter Robert Casey has thoughtfully provided a new website for people like me, which I have already begun using and will continue to in the future.

And although the Mid-Majority website will cease to exist tomorrow night, I am determined to take this season's theme -- "Go. Think. Remember." -- with me into the future, and add one more imperative: "Learn". Thank you Kyle, thank you Ray Curren, thank you Jen Ahearn who so ably edited season VIII contributions that she managed to anticipate and correct my format glitches for me and was always patient. Thank you to all of Mid-Majority who shared this enterprise and made me feel like a member of the community.

One last regret: work prevented me from going to the First Four this year, even though I remembered to save my vacation days this time. I watched the games, so I was with you in spirit, but I wish I could have said hi in person. Is there any way I can meet some of you in Dayton next March?

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Friday, September 20, 2013

True Pennant Race Drama: Quality over Quantity

The American League wild card race is garnering most of the attention these days, for understandable reasons. And if quantity is your thing, you can't beat it.

I beg you to consider quality, though. And for quality pennant race favor, the National League Central has the AL Wild Card race beat. HANDS DOWN. Sure, the American League features 6 teams fighting for 2 spots. Let's face it, the Red Sox are already in (and they might even have clinched the East title if the rules would break a tie between them and the Rays by appealing to head-to-head competition, since Boston beat Tampa Bay 12-7 this season). Oakland and Detroit would have to suffer collapses of Mauchian proportions to fall out of the postseason. As unlikely as that seems in Detroit's case, it seems even less likely in Oakland's case.

So we are left with Tampa Bay, Texas, Cleveland, Baltimore, Kansas City, and New York contending realistically for one of the two wild card spots, sort of like a mid-major conference tournament culminating in 2 survivors playing each other in 1 game for the right to ascend to the post season tournament ... as a double-digit seed. OK, I know. That's not really how bleak it is. Plenty of wild card teams have made it to the World Series and a few have even won it. So, the analogy breaks down. But we're talking about fan excitement here, not the realistic expectations of the players involved. While Boston, Detroit, and Oakland likely cool their heels and tend to their wounds, these 6 teams are scratching and clawing to be one of the 2 remaining teams to be included -- and those 2 teams then have to face off in a 1-game winner take all playoff match for the right to advance to the Division series round. It's a grueling path that Boston, Detroit, and Oakland will surely avoid.

What's more, these 2 teams won't have actually achieved anything. They won't finish 1st in their division. They -- well, as of 2012, one of the 2 -- will be akin to the lucky person who happens to wonder by a card table with 3 persons and a deck of cards wanting to play bridge but needing a fourth. The wild card itself is more of a gift or a reprieve from MLB to whoever proves to be the best ... loser. But, I get it. 6 becoming 2 becoming 1 IS fun. Heck, I'm a sucker for conference tournaments. Come March, I'm glued to the action in the Horizon League basketball tournament and the rest of the world can go fly a kite.

But this is Major League Baseball and the 162 game regular season -- the biggest sample size in professional sports. He who finishes 1st is absolutely the best in their division. EVERY team should be striving for that distinction and despise settling for 2nd best. That is what brings out the best in competition. That is a high standard, as well it should be.

So, while in the National League, the 5 team field is practically set, with the Washington Nationals having an long shot at best at one of the wild card slots, the Central division features 3 teams, all of whom will certainly make the post season BUT all of whom are in serious contention for the Central division title. As of this writing, the Cardinals hold a slim 1 game lead over the Pirates, who in turn hold a slim 1 game lead over the Reds. With about 9 games left to play, 1st place is literally up for grabs. Dusty's crew invades PNC Park this weekend, while St. Louis visits Miller Park, so the dust could settle a bit and it helps the Cardinals a tiny bit that the two teams chasing them have to play each other and neither one plays the Cardinals. But regardless of what happens this weekend, there will still be a huge fight for first place next week -- ALMOST LIKE IT WAS IN THE OLD DAYS WHEN THERE WAS NO WILD CARD. Think of AL West 1987, NL East 1973, NL West 1993, to say nothing of American League 1967. Even though all 3 teams are surely in the postseason, they are all EXTREMELY motivated to avoid that dangerous one-game playoff. It's not quite as gripping, but it's as close as we can come in the Wild Card era (notice how all 3 teams have strong, stellar records; this is not a fight for first place of a weak division).

The rest of the world may be focused on the AL wild card frenzy, but as for me and my house: this weekend and next week, my eyes will be focused exclusively on the NL Central. Even if the Nats somehow make a real run and the Reds fall off, we'll still have 2 teams neck-and-neck for first place. Now, THAT'S drama for you.

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Friday, July 12, 2013

An Open Letter to Tigers Radio PBP team

Mr. Dickerson and Mr. Price,

I am a White Sox fan. I say that only in the interests of full disclosure. I actually come to you as a baseball fan to comment on one aspect of your commentary during the top of the 6th inning of the Tigers-White Sox game on Thursday, July 11, 2013. To refresh your memory: Josh Phegley cleared the bases with a grand slam, putting Chicago up 5-3. Alejandro DeAza was retired in ordinary fashion -- especially considering that earlier in the game, Chris Sale buzzed Prince Fielder's chin after Miguel Cabrera took him deep -- but then Luke Putkonen put one behind Alexei Ramirez. The latter took exception, benches emptied, tempers flared, but no punches were thrown. There was brief confusion over when/if Leyland had been ejected. Mario and Rod assumed his last protest came because he didn't realize he'd been tossed; you two guessed he was upset because Ramirez hadn't been.

After play resumed, Ramirez swung and missed twice to the delight of the crowd, but then dropped one in fair territory down the RF line. He might have made second, but he injured himself rounding 1st and stayed there, eventually being replaced by a pinch-runner, at which point the crowd applauded his injury.

It is what I heard next that I would like to comment on. I heard the two of you join in the behavior of the crowd -- behavior that Rod Allen on Tigers TV rightly called "unprofessional", by the way. Mr. Price called it "karma". Mr. Dickerson referred to "the man who started it all", meaning Alexei Ramirez.

It actually pains me to have to say what comes next because I think you two are one of the best baseball PBP teams in MLB, far better than what we have for White Sox broadcasts in my humble opinion. Many a time when the Sox have played the Tigers, I have willingly listened to your broadcast because I'm tired of the Sox broadcast teams. Until Thursday, my respect for you was unblemished.

When you labeled Alexei Ramirez as the instigator, I found that extremely insulting. To be clear: if Prince Fielder had taken the same kind of umbrage when Chris Sale just barely missed his head and Ed Farmer had berated him for pointing at Sale and then reveled in his injury after beating out a base hit, this same letter would be going to him instead. I am not writing to you as a Sox fan, but as a baseball fan. To suggest that Alexei Ramirez started it because he took umbrage at being used for target practice is insane.

Let me be more pointed: if I'm in the batter's box and you throw at me, I'm ALLOWED to be upset about it. Period. To suggest otherwise is tantamount to blaming the victim. You should know better, both of you. On the list of players who "started it", Alexei Ramirez is absent. If you want to blame a Sox player, blame Chris Sale for starting it. Runner up goes to Luke Putkonen for perpetuating the violence. It's great that he missed, but there is no guarantee of that. It's great that he stayed away from his head. Really, I appreciate that.

But Alexei Ramirez is absolutely allowed to take umbrage. And shame on you for joining the fans' classless behavior. Please take a cue from your TV counterpart.

If you want to know what I would have done if I was czar of discipline for MLB, I would have ejected Chris Sale immediately after that pitch to Prince, and decreed that it ends right there. I don't expect you to agree with that. Mr. Price played; I didn't. I defer to your experience. But I say this only to assure you that my complaint is not a partisan one.

Please keep up your fine work. Your broadcasts are generally interesting to listen to, as well as informative. I also appreciate Mr. Dickerson's occasional Detroit Titans' basketball play-by-play when I get to hear it. I am a Valpo basketball fan and our two teams have had some real classics in recent years.

I just wanted you to know how disappointed I was in this one broadcast. Thank you for your time.

Jim Squire
St. Louis, MO

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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

An ending to a personal season

The 2012-2013 College Basketball season has been over for a month or so now. It was the most active season I have had as a fan, and I wanted to capture my feelings. Much as teams have been known to run out of gas in March or otherwise see their season end too soon, I as a #TMM9 member of @hoppingcats ran out of gas in March as well. Life intruded, I didn't manage my vacation bank very well, and I couldn't dig down deep at crunch time. Since the writing competition ended shortly after the Final Four, I write this ending on my own blog for no points whatsoever, but just to reflect on my season of traveling and writing about mid-major basketball, such as it was. I can't begin to touch this guy (who I ran into a handful of times this year, with the dawning realization that my team would gain no points on his from the game I was attending), but I had fun all the same.

I didn't have the wherewithal to go to that many games, mostly because of my full-time job. As much as I envy the life of Kyle (and marvel at the guy I mentioned above), I'm not ready to retire just yet. My participation was as limited as my free time was (flying was an alternative that I didn't fully explore because I felt it would be too expensive).

Commitment, not to mention zeal that borders on obsession, tends to bring pain and makes one vulnerable to the harshness of the real world. Like an athlete who is smooth as silk one game and writhing in agony the next, cruel chaos has been known to intrude, and then whatever weaknesses we have are exploited. Try as they might, my Valpo Crusaders could not grow extra bulk and inches in the span of a few days in order to match up with the Mighty Spartans of Michigan State. So they had to adapt, and for whatever reason they couldn't. Had they found a way, I would have been there on Saturday to not only write about Valpo-Memphis but also VCU-Michigan, and then who knows, maybe Valpo-Duke in Indianapolis? That's the kind of dreaming that I imagine Will Bogan, Ryan Broekhoff, Erik Buggs, and company allowed themselves to engage in.

Likewise, because I could not magically enlarge my vacation bank at The Boeing Company from 2 hours to 16, much less work 12 hour days around outside commitments, nor will my almost-55-year-old body to withstand even more stress and sleep deprivation, I had to wimp out on my plans to see my team Dance and write for my other team.

So, my 2013 season ended too soon. I couldn’t even make it across Missouri to Kansas City to attend that collection of 6 games. My season consists of 21 recaps and one challenge assignment. It seemed like more than that, but the website doesn't lie. Almost, but not quite the size of a Division I College Basketball regular season.

I divided my season between Valpo games and St. Louis games, the former because of personal allegiance (which was tested a couple of times), the latter because of proximity. Oh, there was that one trip where I stopped off at Hinkle to see the Billikens take on the Bulldogs again, then headed up to Valpo for the bracketbuster, then zagged over to Macomb to see Cleveland State take on Western Illinois. What mostly dominated my travels this year was nostalgia for a conference Valpo used to play in, personal investment in the conference they play in now, and the excitement of teams visiting St. Louis who had captured my imagination in recent years.

As I look back on it, there wasn't a lot of new exploration. I didn't venture into unknown territory. The only time I visited new venues was when Valpo was playing there. I always had to have a prior connection - an excuse to go to the game. The one time I was ready and willing to answer the call, I was unable to. Since warp drive has not yet been invented, I could not attend the Valpo bracketbuster game and avail myself of my last opportunity to see Nate Wolters in person (going up against Isaiah Canaan no less) because 5 hours is nowhere near enough time to go from Valparaiso, Indiana to Murray, Kentucky. It just wasn’t meant to be, and though I did get to see Canaan play, I will regret never finding a way to go see Wolters.

Wichita State lost in excruciating fashion, as it always seems to be predestined for mid-majors (not named Butler) to lose. Baseball season had already begun, but as I tweeted that Saturday night, "Sorry, baseball, you can take a hike for tonight. GO SHOCKERS!" Alas, they faltered and fell short, thus reaching the point every year where I dismiss basketball until November. I don't really do any sport year round. My calendar is neatly split into two halves. It is baseball season now.

Then again, conference realignment encroaches ever closer to the Horizon League. Furthermore, as I finish this off, Oakland has officially joined the Horizon League, my White Sox are miserable so far, and I can’t help looking forward to the renewal of an old conference rivalry that I thoroughly enjoyed. For the first time in several years, I’m more excited in May about College Basketball than I am about Major League Baseball.

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