Perhaps you are still hung over from days of studying college basketball bracketology. Or busy combing the Internet for more Reverend Wright shock-sermon videos. Or consumed by Britney’s conservatorship case. Or maybe you just work for a living.
Chances are that you haven’t paid attention to many Major League Baseball offseason news items over the past five months, excepting perhaps the very public crash-and-burn of Roger Clemens’s reputation. For those who are neither daily readers of BaseballMusings.com nor frequent guests at Jose Canceso’s wild parties, but who still love the game, here’s a primer to get you caught up in time for Opening Day — in America, anyway. (The Boston Red Sox and Oakland A’s opened the season in Tokyo this morning.)
BORAS, CLEMENS, AND A COLD, CRUEL WINTER
This offseason actually started before the postseason had even concluded. During the seventh inning of game four of the World Series, word leaked out that superstar Alex Rodriguez had opted out of his New York Yankees contract and would test the free-agent market. Peter Gammons of ESPN nearly blew a gasket, accusing A-Rod and his agent, Scott Boras, of trying to upstage the Red Sox sweep of the Colorado Rockies. George Steinbrenner’s son Hank made it clear that his team wanted nothing more to do with Boras’s client.
In due course, the American League’s Most Valuable Player panicked, sidelined his agent, sought out Warren Buffett’s advice, and finally signed a long-term contract to remain happily rich and ensconced in the Bronx for a long, long time. Meanwhile, Boras’s fortunes would sink still lower, after Kenny Rodgers fired him and Gary Sheffield ripped him publicly for a deal consummated years earlier.
On the bright side, at least Boras isn’t facing a potential indictment for lying to Congress. That summons will likely be reserved for Roger Clemens, by far the most visible player fingered in the Mitchell Report on performance-enhancing drugs in baseball. MLB nation was glued to the tube last month to watch the House Government Reform Committee’s tag-team wrestling match featuring Clemens and most of the panel’s Republicans versus Patrick McNamee and most of the Democrats. The committee probed Roger Clemens on his diet (“Have you ever been a vegan?” asked one member), whether he will go to Heaven (“surely,” according to another), and what jersey he might wear into Cooperstown (“Leavenworth,” quipped Kansas City Star columnist Joe Posnanski).
Predictably, commentators on cable-news shows were quick to blame Congress for wasting the taxpayers’ money and not devoting its attention to more pressing business. (Someone might want to ask Shepherd Smith why his network showed the hearing uninterrupted in the first place. And even after the hearing mercifully concluded, why didn’t Shep alert viewers to breaking news — namely, the bomb blast in Damascus that vaporized Hezbollah terrorist mastermind Imed Mughniyeh, responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans, Argentines, and Israelis? Just asking.)
DÉJÀ VU IN L.A. AND OTHER TRANSACTIONS
One year ago, the management of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim determined that outside help was needed in centerfield. The club brought in Gary Matthews Jr. for five years at $50 million. The Brooklyn Dodgers of Los Angeles felt the same: Juan Pierre was signed for five years and $45 million.
Fast forward one year: The management for the Angels and Dodgers determined that outside help was still needed in centerfield. (Never mind that, as Phil Gurnee of SportsHubLA.com pointed out, both teams’ general managers strongly defended their acquisitions at the end of last season.) This time, the Angels hooked up with Torii Hunter, the Dodgers with Andruw Jones. The former takes home five years and $90 million; the latter receives only two years but at $19 million per season — an astounding contract, considering that Jones had just endured his worst season in the majors.
There were several trades of note, most involving star pitchers in return for talented prospects. The New York Mets won the Johan Santana sweepstakes, acquiring the ace from the Minnesota Twins for considerably less value than had been anticipated; the Seattle Mariners picked up lefty Eric Bedard from the Baltimore Orioles; the A’s shipped Dan Haren to the Arizona Diamondbacks; the Detroit Tigers grabbed Dontrelle Willis — and monster third baseman Miguel Cabrera (who’s still only 25 years old) — from the Florida Marlins; the St. Louis Cardinals sent talented but injury-prone third baseman Scott Rolen to the Toronto Blue Jays for Troy Glaus, another talented but injury-prone third baseman; and the Chicago White Sox acquired power-hitting outfielder Nick Swisher from Oakland.
Swisher is not the only new outfielder in the Windy City. The crosstown Cubs made a big splash in the free-agent market in December by signing Japanese right fielder Kosuke Fukudome (no, it’s not pronounced that way) to a four-year $48 million contract. Unfortunately, Cubs management chose to celebrate the signing by releasing promotional materials featuring Fukudome utilizing a “Rising Sun” flag image. As On205th.com explained, the image managed to offend some American World War II veterans, not to mention the entire populations of Korea, China, Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. Oops.
COMINGS AND GOINGS
Last year, mediocre free-agent starting pitchers Ted Lilly, Jason Marquis, and Gil Meche signed lucrative, multi-year contracts with new clubs. This winter saw the end of such irrational exuberance, as mediocre free-agent starters Kyle Lohse, Josh Fogg, and Bartolo Colon were kept in limbo until late in spring training before they agreed to bottom-of-the-barrel one-year deals with the St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds, and Red Sox, respectively.
The newest member of the 300-win club — Tom Glavine, 42 — returned to the Atlanta Braves after four years of exile in Flushing. Curt Schilling, 41, re-upped with the Sawx for another year — though it has since been revealed that he’s been nursing a bum shoulder and may miss the season. In contrast, Barry Bonds, 43, a free man for at least one more season, remains unsigned, even after posting a staggering 1.045 OPS [on-base plus slugging percentage] for the San Francisco Giants last year. The ageless Julio Franco, 48, and Kenny Lofton, 40 — not to mention old-and-increasingly-showing-it Mike Piazza and Sammy Sosa, 39 — also remain homeless.
Clubs in Cincinnati, Houston, Los Angeles, Kansas City, New York, Pittsburgh, and Seattle all sport new managers. The Yankees welcomed former backstop Joe Girardi as the club’s new skipper and said goodbye to Brooklyn native Joe Torre, who quickly resurfaced in Chavez Ravine after the Dodgers canned Grady Little. Dusty Baker was brushed off and given the Reds job, and the Royals found Trey Hillman toiling away in Japan.
The Dodgers said farewell to Vero Beach, their home for the past 61 spring trainings, and are moving “Dodgertown” to Glendale, Arizona. This year is the last for both of New York’s baseball stadiums. The Mets say good riddance to Shea (which admittedly might just be the worst stadium in either league) and the Yankees bid adieu to their venerable home. The big ballyard in the Bronx will certainly go out in a blaze of glory: Aside from the possibility of another playoff run, the House That Ruth Built will also host the All-Star Game, a papal mass, and maybe even a Rangers hockey game before it gives up the ghost.
Murray Brown of BizofBaseball.com noted recently that a Yankee Stadium box seat that cost $3.50 in 1967 will run you $250 today — a whopping 1,029-percent increase. In case you were wondering, had the seat been pegged to the Consumer Price Index, it would go for what play-by-play announcer Michael Kay might term “a very reasonable” $22.14.
New Media Vs. The Mainstream, MLB-Style
The ongoing battle between the sabermetric-friendly blogosphere and the old-school cigar-chompers of the print media showed no signs of ending anytime soon, with pitched battles this winter over Hall of Fame and National League MVP voting.
Sports bloggers reacted incredulously to Denver Post columnist Woody Paige’s casual explanation for one of his votes for the Hall: “During a visit to Yankee Stadium in the late 1970s, I wanted to talk to Goose [Gossage] but was told he was cruel and gruff to reporters. I sheepishly introduced myself and said I was from Colorado, his home state, and he talked pleasantly for 30 minutes. We’ve been good friends since. I would vote for him even if he wasn’t deserving.”
“Doesn’t this violate some kind of rule?” asked VegasWatch.net. “It should. I’m kind of amazed that someone, even a man who aimlessly yells on TV for a living, would write that they don’t care if someone is deserving, they’re voting for them because they’re friends. How is this okay?” Thankfully, reliever Gossage — the only player selected this year — didn’t need Paige’s vote, thanks to his ability to preserve leads in the late innings.
As for the other candidates for Cooperstown induction: there was seemingly endless sparring over Tim Raines and Andre Dawson and whether Bert Blyleven or Jack Morris was more deserving. However, the debate over slugger Jim Rice got ugly.
Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy was direct in his criticism of the sabermetric community’s view that Rice was overrated. “Memo to 30-year-old stat geeks combing through Jim Rice’s numbers: Get out of the house and look at the sky one time. I know personal contact frightens you, but let go of OPS for a moment and try talking to someone who saw Rice play, or better yet, played against him.”
“An excellent idea,” shot back Ken Tremendous (a.k.a. The Office and Saturday Night Live writer Michael Schur) of FireJoeMorgan.com:
Here I am, a 30 year-old stat geek, living here in my mother’s basement, eyes glued to my computer, playing God by determining who should be admitted to the Hall of Fame via Excel spreadsheets. It never occurred to me — I mean, it literally never even occurred to me — that I could go watch these games in person. (Truth be told, I actually didn’t know they were live events, presented in front of an audience. I assumed — and who can blame me, given my half-carbon-based, half Intel© Celeron Processor-based brainputer — that baseball games were avatar simulations run from a Cray Supercomputer somewhere in Langley.
Bill Conlin of the Philadelphia Daily News was a tad more ruthless in taking on those who thought that the Mets’ David Wright, and not Jimmy Rollins of the Philadelphia Phillies, deserved the NL MVP honors. Conlin’s reply to one persistent but polite e-mailer: “The only positive thing I can think of about Hitler’s time on earth — I’m sure he would have eliminated all bloggers.” Hitler was obviously unavailable for comment, but President Ahmadinejad did promise to give it future consideration.
ONLY IN WASHINGTON
The relationship between baseball and the nation’s capital has come a long way since the Senators left for Texas — or even since October 13, 2004.
On that night, the Red Sox and Yankees were playing the second playoff game of what would ultimately become one of the most memorable series in history. In a popular Dupont Circle sports and billiards bar, my friends and I looked on in utter disbelief as an employee switched away from Pedro Martinez versus Derek Jeter to . . . John Kerry versus George W. Bush. Apparently, a group of young lefties (not to be confused with Wilbur Wood, Tommy John, or other crafty southpaws) had requested weeks earlier — and, amazingly, been given permission — to have the third (and dullest) presidential debate shown on the bar’s big screen. Did I mention that it was a sports bar?
Times have changed, apparently. The town has grown fond of the Nationals club that arrived from Montreal in time for the 2005 season. This Sunday night, the team will christen a brand-new stadium against the Atlanta Braves, with President Bush throwing out the ceremonial first pitch. Of course, few Washingtonians believe that the Nats, although improved, are playoff-bound, even if young skipper Manny Acta is already among the best in the business. Actually, some don’t even know for sure where the stadium is located (South Capitol Street), let alone how to get there.
And what about that offending sports bar? I shall return eventually to watch the Mets battle the Diamondbacks in game one of the National League Championship Series (for what it’s worth, the Angels and Red Sox will square off in the ALCS), confident that management will not switch channels to show the ninth McCain-Obama debate. After all, Washington is now a baseball town, right? Um, maybe I will call ahead, just in case.
– Jason Epstein, a diehard Mets fan and Nationals season-ticket holder, is President of Southfive Strategies, LLC.