The best, most horrible game

Towards the end of game three of the National League Championship Series, a game in which the Dodgers slapped the Cubs around at Wrigley, the TBS camera kept finding this one kid up in the stands. He was maybe eight or ten and decked out in a Cubs hat and jersey and was wearing his glove and was absolutely miserable that his beloved reigning world champions were about to fall behind a near-fatal three games to none against these interlopers from the West. The kid was inconsolable and looked like he was going to cry.

And I say, good. Eat it, little dude. You’re living on borrowed time thinking baseball is a fun game to watch, especially in October. Truth is, baseball is a cruel wench that stomps your heart, laughs at your pain, and dances in the puddle of your tears. No better time to learn the truth than when you’re young. Baseball is horrible. The best, most horrible game ever conceived.

The best, most horrible game

Vin Scully and all the rest

The Dodgers are in the postseason again and that’s a good thing. Third time in a row, actually. Something they’ve never been able to do in their 132 years in existence. But it’s also a bittersweet time for Dodger fans because it means the easy, clockwork cadence of summer baseball is overtaken by the frenetic and grandiose energy of October. The games get tossed to national broadcasters who’ve paid millions of dollars to show them to you. And it means Vin Scully gets demoted to local radio.

It isn’t until postseason that the lucky souls in LA who were raised on Vin get to know how truly barren of quality the field of TV baseball commentary is. The talent runs the gamut from merely OK to non-offensive to pretty terrible. The NLDS games between the Dodgers and Mets are on TBS (a well-known sports broadcasting powerhouse if ever there was one) and will be called by Ernie Johnson along with color commentary by Ron Darling and Cal Ripken, Jr. Darling and Ripken are OK as these guys go (though Darling has a fairly well established bias against the Dodgers), but Johnson is just plain bad (and difficult to listen to due to always sounding like he has a tablespoon of mashed potatoes in the back of his throat).

The object of their coverage is apparently to talk ALL OF THE TIME. Problem is, since they don’t really know these teams and have only followed them superficially all year, what they have to say is often pretty basic or just plan silly and focuses on the names everyone’s heard of to the exclusion of guys who get their jobs done day in and day out. They tend to inflate the games into match-ups between the most popular, well known players as if everyone else is there to support them in their singular quest (like when ESPN used Alex Rodriguez as their Yankees poster boy in the AL Wild Card game even though he, as usual in postseason play, was essentially invisible at the plate).

What got me thinking about this is a wonderful piece in this week’s New York Times Magazine about the unique talent that is Vin. 

You can listen to Scully for hours and never hear a familiar platitude or a half-­baked thought. His technique, however, is rather simple. He describes the action in front of him just as he encounters it. His demeanor is jovial, neighborly — Mr. Rogers goes to Chavez Ravine. He quotes Dylan Thomas and offers old-­fashioned homilies about the weather (Scully still refers to a breeze as a ‘‘zephyr’’). He coos over children and leads viewers, his ‘‘friends,’’ through stories about everything from the time he went ice-­skating with Jackie Robinson to the time he dreamed of being chased by a giant clam (he had just shared an Italian dinner with Tommy Lasorda, you see). In his voice, you can hear traces of radio plays, New York’s prewar slums, Broadway — a lifetime of experience spent in what, in its more romantic era, was called show business.

Vin’s regular season schedule is limited to home games and a few road trips in the Western Division (usually to San Francisco) so, at best, he’s calling half the games. On the radio, he only does the first four innings and leaves the rest to guys like Charley Steiner and Rick Monday — a team on the OK side of the scale. Steiner calls the away TV games along with Orel Hershiser and Nomar Garciaparra. Except for the fact that Charley complains excessively about the weather and having to travel and can’t ever seem to know when a ball is going out of the park, this is an above-average team. Orel and Nomar were outstanding players on either side of the plate and have the ability to relate what they know. But they’re not Vin. Nobody’s Vin. (Monday, by the way, does play-by-play for radio when Steiner is on TV and it’s a task he’s uniquely unsuited for.) 

As far as I can tell, these are the basic tenets of what makes Vin great:

  1. Don’t play favorites. Ever. He’s been calling the Dodgers since Harry Truman was president and truly loves the organization, but it never comes through. In fact, I grew up assuming he hated the Dodgers, he was so hard on them. If he has favorites, they’re guys from all over who play really well and are fun to watch, but most of them don’t wear blue.
  2. Don’t try and show everyone how clever you are. Vin just calls the action and tries to explain the nuance of the game. He doesn’t second guess the managers or predict their next move. I’ve never heard him say, “This next ball will be a cutter.”
  3. Love the game more than the personalities. Vin admires great players, but you can tell he loves baseball more than any one person who plays it. And he’s known nearly everyone who has since World War II.
  4. Stop and smell the roses. Vin calls out cute kids in the stands and describes the beautiful views and the pleasant weather. This is all part of the game and people at home like to hear about it.
  5. Shut the hell up when something amazing happens. Just…shut up. Let the crowd do the talking, even on radio. If Vin can’t come up with something good to say in these moments, what are the odds anyone can?

Of course, nobody can tell the stories Vin can. Those only come from decades in the business. And not everyone can be as lyrical as Vin can. That’s a gift more than a skill. But with perhaps the single best man to do his job around to observe and learn from, it only seems like the guys calling these games are getting worse. When he stops at the end of next season, it will be one of those times when “end of an era” is a factual description. 

There is nobody else like Vin Scully. And there may never be again.

Kernsternation

Some things cannot be let go. Once seen, they can never be unseen and they exist in my psyche like a grain of sand in an oyster (but without the pearly end product). 

Case in point. At Wrigley Field, home plate is not lined up with the center of the backstop area.

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I’m sure there’s a reason. A really good reason. There must be, else I’d go insane. I don’t bother to look it up, though, because if I can’t find the reason thinking about it will consume me. I just pretend like there’s a perfectly valid explanation and fixing it is impossible.

Then, last week, my Dodgers went to St. Louis and I was forced to once again confront this.

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THAT I.

The new Busch Stadium opened in 2006. I don’t know if “Stadium” was so screwed up then, but I know it’s been that way since last year’s playoffs. I think it’s been wrong for more than two years. What the hell, can’t anyone in St. Louis SEE that!? Are there no designers there? No typographers? Who also watch baseball? Seriously. 

In this case, I assume some catcher trying to run down a pop foul smashed headlong into the sign and broke it at some point. But why isn’t it fixed yet? Why has no one at the Anheuser-Busch company called to complain about how their presumably tens of millions in naming rights payments are being abused like this. HAVE THEY NO EYES?

Besides the I being screwed up, the kerning in the rest of the word just looks off to me. I get that T, A, and D all being up against one another is a challenge, but really? That’s the best we can do? “Busch” appears perfectly done. “Stadium” is kind of a train wreck, even trying to look past the skewed I.

It’s maddening.

For comparison purposes, the Dodgers found themselves in another stadium carrying a beer name right after their series against the Cardinals. In this case, Coors Field.

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Their sign is split in two places by a damned door but the kerning looks perfect. I mean, it’s a weird really 90’s-looking typeface, but the execution is spot-on. 

Target Field also has its name behind home.

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“Target” is also a tricky word with an A under a T and next to an R and its vertical stem, but choosing to use a looser track on the letters makes it look less awkward. Had they chosen a slightly smaller type size in St. Louis or given the word mark a bit more space, the designer there could have done the same as in Target Field. But no.

And now, we’re all stuck looking at it. 

A few more things, re: Best team in baseball

In rereading my earlier post, I realize the late 1800’s were only clear as to “the best team in baseball” if we limit ourselves to thinking about the league that eventually begat Major League Baseball. Of course, other leagues came and went (the Player’s League, for example) and there was an entire other class of very fine ball players not considered playing over in the Negro League. If we expand our scope to those other groups, then perhaps there has never been a good way to determine the best team.

Additionally, the “World Series” can only ever have in it teams from the US and (one) from Canada. Baseball is played seriously all over the Americas and Asia but those teams aren’t invited to play, so again, “best team” must be limited to “best MLB team.”

With regard to how we can fix this “the Postseason play doesn’t establish the best team” thing (if fixing it is necessary and I’m not sure it is) would be to make the MLB Postseason smaller. That’s never going to happen. But, if we want to just imagine for a minute, what if a simple W-L record wasn’t what determined the divisional leaders. What if some kind of Sabermetricish stat was employed that weighted each win based on the the relative strength of the team it was made against (this stat may already exist but I’m too lazy to Google it). So a win against the Nationals would be worth one but a win against the Rockies would be worth .8 or something. Those scores would need to adjusted constantly because teams play better and worse as the season progresses. The ’13 Dodgers prior to Yasiel Puig joining the team were destined to third or fourth place in the NL West but became white-hot and eventually won the division handily. Beating a late-June Dodgers wouldn’t be as big of a deal as beating an early-August Dodgers. Similarly, different pitchers can make a team harder or easier to beat.

So, there’s lots of factors. But let’s just say that was what determined the top teams and who went on to the Postseason. And let’s similarly suggest only the two best teams in each league played for their pennant. One Divisional Championship Series and one World Series. Just like in the Fifties.

Finally, since we’re really living in a fantasy world, I’d suggest each postseason series be nine games long. Short series are not good determinants in baseball as to who the better team is. One game? Preposterous. Three games? Nope. Five is the minimum, but even then one player’s bad day can sink an entire series and, if the goal of playing the series to find the actual best team, you need to control for that.

Of course, nothing like this will happen. Ever. And that’s fine. It’ll just mean the MLB Postseason remains more like an invitational series that follows the real season.

Best vs. the rest

I got into a debate on social media the other day as to whether or not being in the World Series meant the teams facing off were the best teams in baseball. I think that are not, clearly, and not just because my team didn’t make it past the NLDS.

Back in the olden days, there was the National Association of Professional Baseball Clubs (aka, The National League). At the end of the season (except for a few years of experimentation and the four years the American Association was in existence), the team at the top of the standings at the end of the year was known to be the best team. I’d say those years, starting in 1871 and ending in the early 1900’s when the American League came into existence, were the only ones where the question could be answered with simplicity and authority. After that, it becomes progressively murkier.

In 1903, the first World Series was held between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the team that would become the Boston Red Sox. The series went to Boston. From about then to 1969, you could still reasonably argue that the winner of the World Series was the best team in baseball since the two teams that played were simply the ones at the top of the standings at the end of their seasons and, since they played in different leagues, they hadn’t faced each other all year. But in ’69 came divisions and the Divisional Series. The two best teams in each division at the end of the season played for the Pennant and the right to represent the league in the World Series.

Here’s where it starts to get less clear. It is possible the best teams in each league weren’t the ones to win each division. The two best could easily be in one division while the winner of the other division could actually be worse than the second best team in the other. This was all made even more complicated in 1994 when the leagues, laden with expansion teams that probably shouldn’t have been added in the first place, split into three divisions and the dreaded Wild Card was created.

The Wild Card was the team with the best non-division winning record. On paper, that might make things fairer since that non-winning record could still be better than the other two division winners. But in 2012 the waters were further muddied with the addition of second wild card team in each league who had to play a single game (a single game!) against the other Wild Card team to see who got the right to play in the rest of the postseason. A play-in game, not a play-off game.

How this has played out in 2014 is as follows. The Kansas City Royals could not maintain a lead in the American League Central division over the Detroit Tigers but, since they beat the Oakland Athletics in their single play-in game, they’ve been able to play well enough to make it to the World Series. Similarly, the San Francisco Giants had but could not maintain their hold on the National League West division but, since they beat the Pirates in their play-in game, were given the opportunity to make their way to the World Series.

In the Royals case, their record against the Tigers was 5-13. The Tigers totally owned them all year long. In the case of the Giants, their record against their divisional champion Los Angeles Dodgers wasn’t quite so lopsided at 9-10, but they only managed to beat the Dodgers twice in nine attempts after the All-Star break. Neither the Giants nor the Royals faced these apparently better, more dominant teams in the playoffs because both of them fell in the first round to the Cardinals and the Orioles respectively. Further complicating this picture is the relatively recent addition of Interleague Play to the MLB season. The Royals played the Dodgers three time and lost twice.

My position isn’t that either of these Wild Card teams don’t deserve to be in the World Series. They got there according to the rules and the winner will rightfully be crowned the World Champion. But neither of these teams were able to actually win when they had to to take their divisions over the long, hard slough of the regular season. Both (especially the Royals) were dominated by divisional rivals that neither had to face in the payoffs. They are good teams, but how anyone can say that just because they made it to the World Series makes them the best is genuinely beyond me.

The best teams in baseball are those with the best W-L records at the end of 162-game season. This season, that would mean the Los Angeles Angels with the best overall record of any MLB team in the AL and the Washington Nationals over in the NL. The MLB Postseason, with all it’s twists and turns and obfuscating play-in games, isn’t what it used to be with regard to determining the best team. It’s like another little season where only the top teams play that lasts a month at the end of the regular season.

Just because the Giants or Royals can win the most games against four teams in twenty games doesn’t make up for the fact that they couldn’t win the most against thirty over 162. Again, they do deserve to be in the World Series. They just don’t deserve to call themselves the best teams in the game just because they got there.

Moneyball

dodger_logoAlas, my hopes for the Dodgers in the postseason have come to naught. Honestly, as a Dodger fan from way back, I really shouldn’t be very surprised. There’s a reason the team’s fans call them bums. So many years of disappointment.

Except, this team isn’t like any other team in the history of the franchise. That’s because the 2014 Dodgers were the most expensive assemblage of baseball talent to ever take the field. Nearly $240 million a year worth. And the funny thing is, that’s not even close to everything they can afford to spend.

Last year, the team entered into a deal with Time Warner Cable valued at between $7–8 billion over 25 years. By far the richest TV deal in the MLB. That works out to between $280 million and $320 million a year. Figuring that the team has lots of other sources of revenue (such as merchandising and an MLB-leading 3.8 million clicks of the turnstiles in 2014) and you can imagine they could spend quite a bit more than $240 million a year and still turn a tidy profit.

Rival fans want it both way when it comes to the fat Dodgers payroll. One the one hand, derision at spending all that money but not making it out of the divisional series against what, on paper, looked like an inferior opponent. On the other hand, had they won it all, they would have been accused of buying the title al a the Yankees. How can both these things be true? How can a team spending more than $100 million a year less beat them in four games if money was all that mattered? How can the Giants, at about $80 million a year less, advance over their Western Division champions? Either the money is an unfair advantage or it’s a wasteful excess. It can’t be both.

In spending all that money, the Dodgers aren’t doing anything against the rules. It’s not even immoral. It’s what they should do. They have the resources to field the best team in the world and they should. It’s the American Way. They’re in the business of selling entertainment, after all. The more exciting and rewarding, the better. What else should they do with all that money? Why would they limit themselves to some arbitrary cap on payroll? The group that owns the team now says they want nothing less than a World Series title. Not only because that would be the most Dodger fans could hope for but also because it would be very good for the bottom line.

When the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958, they ceded the potential title of “America’s team” to those they left behind in the East. As TV became ever more important and national networks rose up to air a seemingly uninterrupted stream of Yankees, Red Sox, Braves, and Cubs games (ESPN, TBS, and WGN respectively), those places between the big baseball cities gravitated to the new national baseball brands if for no other reason than the timezones are stacked against a West Coast team (says the guy who stays up way too late watching 9:10 starts). That’s why the majority of fans in places like rural New Mexico and Montana prefer the Yankees and the Red Sox are the favorite team in southwestern Wyoming. This is also why the Yankees and Red Sox logos have become global brands.

The Dodgers aim to put their brand in the same light. They’re starting with a healthy following in Asia and South America already, but if they want to be anywhere near as powerful from a brand perspective as the Yankees, they need to start winning. Winning big.

So, as a life-long fan, I am disappointed in this year’s outcome. But I’m also optimistic because I know this team is on the right trajectory and I know the current owners have deep pockets and lofty goals. Assuming they can target their spending on quality talent that will perform when needed and continue to invest in a robust farm system, it’s only a matter of time. That World Series title it out there. And, I suspect, when it lands, it will be the first of many.

Post-season fantasy path

I root for the Dodgers. Of Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Dodgers of Los Angeles. This is how I hope the MLB post-season progresses in that, if it were to, I would we rewarded with the highest degree of satisfaction (and, along the way, stomach-churning angst).

NLDS: Dodgers over St. Louis. I don’t have much choice about this since it’s how the pieces fell and I have nothing special against the Cards (other than how they beat the Dodgers in last year’s NLCS in the sixth game). Both teams are different this year (LA a little better, STL a little worse). I am cautiously optimistic.

NLCS: The only team I’m worried about in the National League is Washington, so here’s hoping the Giants can find a way to get past them and then lose miserably to the Dodgers in the NLCS. I know they can beat the Giants. They did it ten times in the regular season. Also, if you’re a Dodger fan, you’ve been brought up to hate the Giants like Eurasia hated Eastasia in 1984. We really have always been at war…

World Series: Dodgers over Angels. It was my eternal childhood dream to see the Dodgers play the Angels in the post-season. A real Freeway Series. Until inter-league madness began, the only way they’d ever play a game that mattered would be in the World Series. This year is the closest they’ve ever come in that they’re both among the very best teams in their leagues. The Angels are, IMO, perhaps the very best team in the MLB this year and a fearsome opponent, but this is my fantasy scenario so, of course, the Dodgers win. The Dodgers have handled the Angels pretty well over the regular season, so assuming they can get that far, I’d give them pretty good chances.

I admit hurling my dreams into the wind like this is a powerful temptation to Fate to strike me down. But I have no choice. A bird must sing.