Every time a shuttle bus back from a game pulls into a stop, the line to pay and get off snags. “How much is it?” people ask, fumbling for more change, and then three fans later, same deal. The Mariners have played 73 games at home so far this season, the shuttles have run for years, and even this late in the season, after years of popular baseball, there are people who don’t know it’s $2.50. It’s another sign of the huge casual fan base teams enjoy. I see more than 40 games a year at Safeco Field, as part of a season-ticket plan I split plus games I head to on my own. I’m atypical though. The Mariners have about 20,000 season-ticket holders, and they push season-ticket packages aggressively starting just after their annual mid-season failure to improve for the stretch (“Fans, reward your tight-fisted pound-foolish ownership group by sending in a deposit on a 2004 season-ticket plan now, before you get your blood all angried up when the Mariners miss the playoffs”). They sold a couple thousand more when Safeco Field opened, but it’s been down since then. Now from there, there’s a ton of ticket-sharing (buy the tickets, split them two or more ways), and the Mariners sell 20-game packages that are cleverly balanced between the good and bad teams. I’m throwing this out there, but I figure that there’s a core of 40,000 fans who see 20 or more games a year–at least 800,000 clicks of the turnstiles over the course of a year. Meanwhile, unless the city gets fed up and stops going to see the team, the Mariners’ attendance this year will top 3.2 million stubs. So that would be nearly two-and-a-half million tickets purchased by fans far more casual than me.
Everett Memorial Stadium is an intimate neighborhood park, modest and unassuming, easy to look past. It holds a couple of thousand people, and it’s all metal stands with seats and bleachers, which enhances the prep feel of the place. After a good play, fans stomp their feet, producing a wide taka-taka-taka sound that makes me smile. The field’s nice. Like all minor league fields I’ve seen, I look at the surface and think “man, they need to get that color even, and fix that trim…” as if they’ve got the kind of money and manpower major league teams muster to produce their perfect fields.
The teams don’t have clubhouses in the park itself–they have to walk up to what is essentially a high school locker room, where the facilities are pretty bad. The lockers aren’t tall enough for a uniform, I hear, so they have to hang them up on wires that are strung across the aisles. But what are you going to do? This isn’t the Midwest League.
The Drew Henson Saga, of course, is more than that; it’s one of the most interesting stories in Prospectdom. He may not be six-year, $17 million interesting though, which is the contract the Yankees gave him to give up football. And now we’re off to the races with what is one of the most-debated topics of prospect analysis: Can plate discipline be taught? Can someone like Henson, who’s extremely strong, shorten his swing, get the bat around faster so he can make more contact? Can he learn to recognize the curve and hit it? And will that help him stop swinging at bad breaking pitches, draw some walks, and get better pitches to drive? Are humans inherently good or evil? I was the lone voice in favor of including Henson in BP’s Top 40 Prospects list, at least in the Honorable Mention section. The only thing that’s changed is that he’s had a repeat year, the highlight of which was that for a brief while we heard he was catching on and had a better approach at the plate. His defense at third is still bad. What kind of improvement would have been required for Henson to be adequate, or even considered a good prospect again?
We’re in Philadelphia today for a one-game makeup. I forgot entirely about the game and barely caught our charter flight. I wasn’t alone–there were four of us charging down the concourse, to be faced with all the kids who’d been trying to get autographs from Pedro, and had started to walk back to their buses or scooters or whatever. They recognized us, and started flipping through their card books to match names to unsigned cards. Then you’ve either got to go through the kids, and that’s a disaster either way because Abbie Markham of Action 6 News is live from Logan Airport, where a young kid who just wanted an autograph got a mark of an entirely different kind…
Fortunately, Mirabelli was first and had this scowl on that made him look like he might enjoy eating well-fed children. Dude is huge, and he’s used to having very large people try to knock him down to win games, so some 50-pound kid’s going to bounce off him like a quarter off J.Lo’s ass. The kids parted in front of us and we made our gate. I was a little out of breath carrying my luggage, and told a trainer I might have strained a rib cage muscle. He made a note of it.
Esteban Loaiza’s a fine candidate for the Cy Young Award this year…he’s the right height, you see. He’s 6’4″, as all the cool kids are these days, as well as the last two winners of the AL Cy Young Award. On the other hand, he was born late in the year, and there hasn’t been a late-born winner since Pedro Martinez in 2000. That’s pretty dumb, huh? Who cares how tall Esteban Loaiza is, or what color his eyes are? You’ve already spotted where I’m heading with this, so I’ll give it up: speculation around the Cy Young beyond who should win it is counter-productive. Like the MVP, the Cy Young speculation centers around a bunch of indicators of pitcher ability that every year reinforce the importance of those statistics. If everyone runs an article saying Tim Hudson can’t win because he doesn’t have the win total, it makes it less likely Hudson’s going to get the award. Even if the effect seems small–voters making a choice between equally-qualified second-place candidates on their ballot, for instance–the knowledge that their vote might help a winner over the top can lead them to go with the bandwagon. And in turn, this leads to speculation on which candidates for each award have the needed momentum. They in turn get mentioned early and often on sports pages. It’s unfortunate that baseball coverage on the end-of-season awards has been reduced to the level of political coverage.
I’m a huge Rafael Soriano fan. In fact, I’ve been so impressed with him that I’ve given him my full endorsement. Soriano came up last year, pitched in the rotation for a stretch, but didn’t do particularly well. After being sent down to the minors, he honed his slider and change and this year he returned as a reliever. Since then he’s been outstanding. Despite only throwing 40 innings, he’s on BP’s Top 30 Relievers list. Soriano deals. He has his off days, but not many this year, and I’ve been to games where I had to pick my jaw up off the sticky Safeco concrete, his stuff looked so good. You’ll hear reports that he’s got dominant closer stuff, but Soriano was a starter in the minors and he’ll be back in the rotation sooner or later. Think Johan Santana. So here are the guys pitching relief now who could be starting and health willing, winning if given the opportunity.
In early August, the Mariners demanded money for their playoff strips. You get to pay up front for every possible home game, plus a non-refundable handling fee (a ridiculous $35). In the past, I’ve complained about this a little, particularly the absurdity of having to pay for hypothetical one-game playoffs at the end of the season. It’s all part of their plan to get your money earlier and earlier, and what they don’t take in in non-refundable fees, they stick in a bank and rack up interest dollars. With seven teams in each league able to hit their fans up for playoff money with a straight face, that works out to be a lot of money.
I want baseball to be healthy. Other sports are edging ahead of baseball when it comes to outrageous fees (you might get to pay to stay on the waiting list for season tickets, for instance). So in the interest of keeping my favorite sport ahead of the times, I’d like to present my bill for the 2010 Seattle Mariners playoff strip, presented to me by a time-traveling me (who annoyingly refuses to give me betting advice, stock market tips, or even to travel further back in time and give high-school Derek a particularly important piece of information on one of my/his/our girlfriends that would have prevented a lot of misery all around):
Barry Bonds’ prolific mashing has pushed him in to a shot at the major league lead in career home runs. All this attention has neglected some other possible feats in career achievement. There are two historic baseball records under assault, and no one seems to care. When players threaten to break the single-season strikeout record, they get benched. We’ve seen it happen even if they’re having productive seasons, like with Jose Hernandez when he was with the Brewers. Andres Galarraga passed Jose Canseco on the career strikeout list this year, taking over position two on the list. Galarraga’s not a full-time whiffer, though, and we have to look further down on our list to find our next great hope: Sammy Sosa. Sluggin’ Sammy had 1,834 Ks going into this season, and he reels off 150 a year. Plus, he’s only 34, and should have a few more fine years left in him. He and Galarraga could be two-three after this season, and after that you’re looking at Jim Thome (who stands about 30th all-time right now) as the only non-Sosa candidate to challenge the long-standing reign of K King Reggie Jackson. Jackson’s 2,597 strikeouts are the Mt. McKinley of career marks to the Everest and Kilimanjaro of home runs and hits.
Tom Gamboa was minding his own business as the first base coach of the Royals when he was jumped by a father-son team who attempted to beat him up, before the bonding pair themselves got a lesson in stomping by players. Ligue asserts Gamboa gave him the finger in response to some heckling. I don’t think that qualifies as ‘fighting words,’ or is really even relevant.
William Ligue Jr. did not get sent to jail last week. The judge instead sentenced him to 30 months of probation.
Judge Holt: “The violence that baseball players are exposed to comes from within. What fan has not seen a pitcher intentionally hurl a baseball at a player’s head at 90 miles per hour? Who has not seen a batter leave home plate headed for the pitcher’s mound bat in hand bent on mischief and mayhem?”
I understand what he means. And yet, the issue of on-field conflict is something baseball has struggled to control. Intent is difficult to determine when pitchers throw inside, and baseball’s tried to strike a balance between letting the game play itself out and deterring on-field confrontations. You see this balance every time an ump decides to warn both benches, attempting to stave off further beanings at the cost of dramatically changing where pitches and even game strategy can go.
This is a bad argument, though.
Pete Rose and Major League Baseball have reached an agreement that would allow him to return to baseball in 2004, and includes no admission of wrongdoing by Rose, Baseball Prospectus has learned. According to several sources, Rose signed the agreement after a series of pre-season meetings between Rose, Hall of Fame member Mike Schmidt, and at different times, high-level representatives of Major League Baseball, including Bob DuPuy, Major League Baseball’s Chief Operating Officer, and Allan H. “Bud” Selig, Commissioner of Major League Baseball.
I woke up yesterday morning to hear NPR’s Frank Deford complain about how ineffective Bud Selig was in controlling the Yankees this year, that every fan of other teams had learned that the trading deadline was the effective end of the season. He went on to complain for a while about this year’s moves and I got up to go shave, depressed about the continued domination of New York and my home town team’s fortunes. I was then shocked–shocked!–to find out that not only did the Yankees not win last year’s World Series, they didn’t even win the year before. Why, if this keeps up, it’ll be hard to come up with, “What kind of a world is it where a man can’t whine about Yankee dominance as a back-up topic for their column, or radio bit, or appearance on whatever show Jim Rome’s hosting that week?” Deford was right–the Yankees did acquire an All-Star third baseman. But Robin Ventura’s an All Star third baseman, too, and no one’s talking about that. Aaron Boone’s really no plum, either–at press time, he was hitting .245/.304/.401 away from (as Dave Cameron called it) the Great American Bandbox. If these are the acquisitions the Yankees are going to make to take on salary, so be it.
This Sunday I headed down to Safeco Field (“The House That Griffey Built And Left”) to catch a Mariners game, and was treated to some great contrasts. Gil Meche wavered, striking out seven in only five innings, allowing four hits and three walks and taking 116 pitches to do it, of which 68 were strikes. Meanwhile, Mark Buehrle breezed, throwing just a hair over half as many pitches until he unraveled in the 6th inning. Meche was relieved by Rafael Soriano, who’s been so impressive of late I’ve given him my full endorsement. Soriano pitched two innings and struck out five of the next seven batters he faced, allowing only a solo home run–and it took him only 34 pitches, 17 per inning, or five less an inning than Meche. Buehrle was relieved by once-closer Billy Koch, who took 34 pitches to get out of one inning, again bringing up a thought. How many pitches does it take a guy to get an out?
Alex Rodriguez is one of the best players in baseball. He’s also the best compensated. He left Seattle as a free agent to sign a deal with Texas that’s been so widely reported as 10 years and $252 million that it feels futile to protest. As a result, he’s become a pariah of greed. This week, Alex made some comments to the press about maybe, possibly, wanting to be traded from Texas. “If the Rangers found they could be better off without me, whether now or a year or two down the road,” he said, “I’d be willing to sit down and talk.”
Today, as I write this column, I see he’s quickly backed off his comments, trying to calm everyone down.
Frankly, I find this ridiculous. Rodriguez is not a greedy player with a heart made of coal. Articles written about him and his alleged self-indulgence at the expense of his team–calling for him to volunteer for a pay cut and what not–are bitter pieces written by the envious, looking for an easy column in which they can act holier-than-Alex and decry the money-grubbing nature of athletes all at the same time. Have any of these columnists been offered three times their current salary to work in a comparable situation, giving them the ability to fund all of their favorite charities and live comfortably and provide for their children?
I didn’t think so.
It’s the last day before the trading deadline, when teams can tilt the world if they’re willing to pay the price, affecting their fortunes for years to come, and no one’s paying attention. My hometown team just lost its brittle shortstop to injury again, and Billy Beane just pulled out a deal to help his team bridge the three-game gap to the division lead. Boston and New York are fighting out a close race in the AL East. In the Central, the White Sox have armed themselves to try and catch the Twins. The National League has a three-way contest in the Central and a secondary race for the wild card spot that includes the Florida Freaking Marlins and a Diamondbacks team that managed to stay in the race while coping with varied injuries and juggling lineups. There are a hundred trade rumors I hear about every day, some of them brilliant and with the potential to change the face of the stretch run. And the front page of the sports section is stuffed with football training camps. Oooh, the Seahawks have a lot of talent on the field right now. Bill Parcells has brought some new…uh…thing…to the Cowboys camp.
There are over 290 million people in the U.S. Only above half of those have a team in their metro area. A lot more have regional teams, of course, but there are tons of people out there who are in one way or another, up for grabs. Teams only have a few minor league teams they can use to try and build affiliations with, and the rest has to be access and marketing–setting up radio feeds, getting games on televisions across the country any way you can, handing out flyers, whatever. Unfortunately the way baseball has things set up, teams are handcuffed.
Say the Expos move to Oregon and are run by, uh, me. I want to make the team popular, and I’m willing to run it at a huge loss for a while to get people attached to the new team. I want to offer free Internet radio feeds to capture a huge attractive audience of affluent people. Can’t do it, because MLB Advanced Media’s running the Internet game, and I have to be content with the money and exposure I get with their pay-for-play packages. I can try and reach the most ears with actual radio coverage, and advertise to make sure people know they can listen in, but it’s going to be extremely hard for me to crack the tiny markets and pick off those guys I wanted to get to through Internet feeds. I can set up a loss-leader television deal, start my own channel and try and go superstation, but there are huge costs involved and I just bought a baseball team, which puts me (roughly) $200 million dollars in debt, assuming a purchase price of $200 million, plus I’m going to be dealing with baseball’s impossibly complex and wacky blackout rules. I’m SOL, domestically.
Baseball’s becoming more and more of an international game, and for once should take the lead among sports innovation. Baseball should make every effort to get games on in countries where baseball’s played, particularly in the Pacific Rim. Live or rebroadcast, there should be a baseball game on every day in Seoul and Sydney, a well-produced advertisement for the sport. Baseball has a massive resource pool to get these games on the air somewhere in these markets and try and build an international fan base.
You’ve heard it all before: “We’re comfortable with our team,” “We’re going to go to battle with what we have,” or the best one of ’em all, “We don’t want to tamper with success.”
No matter how you slice it, though, each one of those phrases translates into the same thing: “Yes, we know we’ve got some gaping holes, but we don’t want to make a trade because we’re cheap, or we don’t think we’ll make it to the playoffs anyway.”