Politics & Policy

Just a Bit Outside

Political and news journalists weigh in on the national pastime.

During the final weekend and Monday morning of the regular season, I had an e-mail exchange with several journalists who don’t cover baseball, but deep down maybe wish they did. Although all were neck deep in work, we managed to discuss numerous topics, from memorable moments during the regular season to the amazing Bryce Harper and Mike Trout to — no joke — the infield-fly rule.

Here are the personalities who participated:

Steve Futterman, an Angels fan, is a CBS News West Coast correspondent. He has been with CBS since 1998.

Mollie Hemingway, a Cardinals fan, is an editor at GetReligion.org and Ricochet.com.

Adam Housley, a Giants fan, joined Fox News Channel in 2001 as a Los Angeles–based correspondent. Prior to his career in television, Housley played professional baseball and was drafted by the Montreal Expos and played for both the Milwaukee Brewers and the Detroit Tigers organizations. He was a Junior Olympic baseball All-American in 1988.

Rick Klein, a Yankees fan, is ABC News’ senior Washington editor, serving as senior Washington producer for the nightly broadcast, and frequent Fox News on-air guest.

Charles Krauthammer, a Nationals fan, is a nationally syndicated columnist and also a weekly panelist on the PBS news program Inside Washington and a nightly panelist on Fox News’ Special Report with Bret Baier.

Chuck Todd, a Dodgers fan, is the chief White House correspondent for NBC News, as well as the co-host of The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. He became NBC News’ political director in March 2007. He also serves as NBC News’ on-air political analyst for NBC Nightly News with Brian WilliamsToday, Meet the Press, and MSNBC.

Karen Travers, a Phillies fan, joined ABC News in 2000 and is currently a Washington-based correspondent for ABC NewsOne, the network’s affiliate news service.

Epstein: Thank you for agreeing to take part in this virtual roundtable interview. As you know, the purpose of this conversation is to step away from the day job in order to unleash your baseball fandom.

What has been the most memorable play or game that you witnessed, at the ballpark or on TV, this season? 

Futterman: To me it was the day after the 100th anniversary game at Fenway Park, which saw the Yankees come back from a 9–0 deficit to beat the Red Sox 15–9.

It was a comeback that I don’t think anyone saw coming. The Red Sox led 9–0 after five innings. Then the Yankees scored once in the sixth and then had back to back seven-run innings in the seventh and eighth.

That game seemed to symbolize a lot of the past, present, and future of the Red Sox team.

Klein: Bryce Harper’s stealing home was the moment that Natitude became for real. Or, at least, scored a run.

Cole Hamels, the Phillies’ onetime World Series hero, did the classless but predictable thing to welcome young Mr. Harper to the bigs back in early May. He plunked him, for some perceived arrogance in Harper’s having the temerity to be good and brash while not old enough to have a drink in the United States of America.

Harper promptly went from first to third on a single. Then he did the thing that books will record, for it had not been done by a 19-year-old since Davey Johnson was in the minors — he stole home.

Hamels threw over to first. Harper broke for home. A cloud of dust later at Nationals Park, and Harper had arrived. Safe.

Welcome to the bigs, indeed.

Epstein: Forgive the interruption, but Homer Bailey of the Reds is two outs away from throwing the seventh no-hitter of the season. As a fan of the Giants, Adam, does Matt Cain’s perfect game on June 13 top your list of season highlights?

Housley: I love the little moments usually. The game where, down by one, the five-hole hitter hits the ball to the right side to move the runner over with less than two outs, and then a sac fly drives him home. Or the player who waited years for that one chance and then came through to get a hitter out in the clutch. The Oakland A’s have a ton of guys like that this year and as a Bay Area boy, I always have a soft spot for teams like the A’s.

Having said that . . . watching those final outs by Matt Cain and knowing the history of that moment was truly thrilling. The energy came through the TV.

Krauthammer: Best moment/play of the year? A single to center where nothing happened. I was there. The crowd went crazy.

It was the Milwaukee series last weekend. Tight game. Ryan Braun hits a double. Next guy up hits a single up the middle, not very hard. Harper charges like crazy, making up a ton of ground to get to the ball. Braun rounds third. I’ve got both in my field of vision and, I actually say to myself, “No chance,” of Harper getting him. Harper comes up with a perfect scoop on the dead run and fires the ball home. It’s not just a perfect strike on the fly to Suzuki, but it’s about two feet just to the third-base side of the plate, so Suzuki doesn’t have to sweep. Suzuki just drops the tag instantly. Braun out. Replay shows Braun’s foot about nine inches short of the plate when tagged.

Place goes crazy. But that’s not even the best part. The batter got to second on the play at the plate. Next guy hits a near-identical single up the middle. Harper charges. Perfect scoop and ready to throw home. Except the runner had stopped dead at third base.

It’s the Aretha Franklin Award: Respect. The only thing missing was the tip of the from the entire Milwaukee dugout.

Place goes nuts. Never seen anything like it.

Epstein: Indeed! I suspect too that Brewers third-base coach Ed Sedar fully grasps the notion of job security.

Hemingway: One thing I love about Bryce Harper’s steal of home being “the moment” is that most Nats fans agree on it, even though the Nats totally lost that game.

Anyway, other than tuning in to hear or watch some of those perfect games midway through, I haven’t really witnessed that many great games this year. But I did catch an interesting Tigers vs. Orioles game at Camden this July. I’m a Cardinals fan and couldn’t care about the American League. I’d gone to the game with a bunch of Michiganders and was rooting for the Orioles out of ancient loyalty to the St. Louis Browns.

So Detroit comes in on a five- or six-game winning streak. Orioles were playing great and dominated early. After giving up a run in the first, a dozen or more Tigers batters were shut down. Orioles were up 4–1 going into the 9th. My husband was getting ready to head home after the next three outs. But Detroit tied it. Free baseball!

Both teams scored a run in the 11th and Detroit got another run in the 13th. But the Orioles tied it in the bottom and then scored another two on a home run. Game over, 8–6.

It was just a fantastic five-hour game. And it showed so much about both teams.

Detroit is a far better club than it sometimes manages to show with its actual record. They should have run away with the division, but each game has been like passing a kidney stone. And yet, no matter whether they have no expectations — like last year, when they made the playoffs — or this year, where it should have been easy — they fight for every game. Good ball club.

And the Orioles. My favorite thing about them this year is that while I think they have a positive run differential now, even a few days ago it was negative. You have to love that. A team that ekes out victories like the game I saw but when they lose, lose big. There’s something to a team that knows that if a game hasn’t completely gotten away from them, they can win if they just keep fighting for runs here and there. It should serve them well in the postseason.

The final thing about that game is that my children learned a valuable lesson about never leaving a baseball game early. I learned that when I was six or so in a 16-inning Cardinals–Dodgers game. It’s a lesson learned better via experience.

Todd: Forgive the sap for a minute but this will be an important season in my memory bank simply because it’s the season my five-year old son got the baseball bug. He greets me with score updates (yes, he reads the ESPN app on my phone). This is a long intro to get to what will be a memory I’ll remind my boy of watching: Felix Hernandez’s perfect game in August. Okay, so the last three innings of it for me (came home early from work). He was already watching the game with his babysitter (the MLB package is popular in my house) but didn’t quite realize how important this “perfect game” deal was. I’m still not sure I did the best job of explaining it but we cheered every pitch and then I did say after the game was over, “next year, he’ll probably be a Yankee and we can never cheer for him again . . . ever.”

So again, not all my responses will be sap like this, it’s the most important memory of the season for me as I continue watching my son become addicted to this game (I mean, as I continue the brainwashing of him about baseball).

By the way, if the Nationals do win the Series, I agree, Harper’s steal will be the iconic tone setter.

Mollie, I suspect that someone who describes herself as a “Cardinals fan and couldn’t care about the American League” is no fan of interleague play. Do you believe that the World Series and All-Star Game have lost a bit of luster as a result?

Hemingway: The 2002 All Star game ended in a 7–7 tie. Any remaining luster it had up to that point has not been recovered.

Epstein: The Phillies didn’t make the postseason — in spite of the injuries to Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, Karen, did you have high expectations on Opening Day? (I realized that the club was aging, but figured there was still enough gas in the tank to get them to one more World Series appearance.) And how have your Nats-fan colleagues, friends, and neighbors handled the two teams’ sudden reversals of fortune?

Travers: Right to the gut Jason!

There were definitely high expectations in Philly at the start of the season. Last year’s playoff elimination was a brutal pill to swallow. I still think about that one Utley hit that was deep to center that would have changed the final game and given us life . . . 

Going into Opening Day there were concerns about injuries — how long would Howard be out? Would Utley be able to field balls at second without sitting on a stool? But the Phillies hung in there for a time. The turning point for me was when Roy Halladay got hurt. The stretch without three stars on the field seemed to not just hurt in the team’s production but there was something missing in the attitude.

Given the hole the Phillies were in back at the All Star break, it’s amazing that we even cared about baseball in September in the City of Brotherly Love . . . especially when the Eagles started 2–0!

As for Nats fans and their surge this season, I will admit it hasn’t been easy to live in D.C. for it. Especially when we Philly fans are a) used to stomping on the Nats and b) always giddy when the Redskins start strong and then have their predictable meltdown. I will concede it’s great for the city to have that energy around the team and hope it really sparks the neighborhood around the ballpark. But I also hope it’s a one-year success story and the regular order returns next year with the Phillies on top.

Adam, how does this year’s Giants different from the club that won the World Series in 2010? And will Melky Cabrera’s absence markedly impact their chances?

Housley: Kind of like the Giants season after Melky was suspended. It was one of those hope-for-the-best scenarios. A lot of folks believe that’s why the Giants went out and got Hunter Pence: They had an idea Melky could be in trouble. It had been rumored and my friends in the clubhouse said it was floating around.

Having said that, they have played better without him. He was a great bat, but I think his absence forced other guys to step up, and the addition of Marco Scutaro has been huge.

This team of course is similar to 2010 in many ways. The big-three pitching staff no less and a bunch of guys who give their all. Having said that, there are some differences. This team hits better and has better defense. The bull pen isn’t as strong without a true closer, but they have more depth and more guys who switch hit and can play other bases.

It really will come down to how well Timmy [Lincecum] pitches. You know Cain and Madbum [Madison Baumgarner] are going to give you strong outings, but which Timmy will show up? That has to be the question . . . and also who will be the No. 4? Great to see Zito back at it . . . but [Ryan] Vogelsong was great for most of the year.

Chuck, I remember sneaking a radio into my bed to hear games that had gone past 9:30 p.m. But as a kid . . . so much better to grow up with sports out here . . . West coast games start so much earlier. And MLBTV is a godsend.

Todd: As a Dodgers fan growing up in Miami (we had nothing but spring training and UMiami college baseball), my dad kept our afternoon-paper subscription (the Miami News) simply so we could get a Dodger box score . . . 

Epstein: Thank heavens for MLB Advanced Media and MLB Network! My parents only subscribed to the New York Times, which never provided information on the late games, meaning that any time the Mets were playing weeknight games on the West Coast, I needed to walk down to the candy store and pick up a copy of the Post or the Daily News.

Steve, you are a diehard Angels fan so I expect you to provide a completely dispassionate perspective on 21-year old Mike Trout. Bryce Harper may be emerging as the beast in the East, but three time zones away Trout might be having the greatest rookie season ever for a position player. (For example, he is the youngest player in history to post a 30-home-run, 30-stolen-base season.) In addition to his prowess at the plate, no one disputes that he is an outstanding defender and excellent baserunner. With all due respect to Miguel Cabrera and his quest for the Triple Crown, isn’t Trout the AL MVP?

Futterman: He seems too good to be true. I am transfixed by his magical season. It is as if he has been sent by Central Casting. 

Many have said it, but, he does that boyish freshness that we always associate with Mickey Mantle in 1951 or the fictional Joe Hardy. 

His freshness is captivating, his talent is inspiring and his potential, most people feel, is close to limitless.

My favorite Mike Trout moments have been when he has willed himself to win a game.

There was one game (late in the season during a critical game) that the Angels were trailing in the ninth and he recklessly but wisely (can you do both?) tried to stretch a single into a double. 

He did it. 

I was watching by myself on TV and still audibly gasped. 

The Angels won. 

Unless the Angels make the playoffs (very doubtful), I give MVP to Miguel Cabrera. 

How good will he be? You have to wait a few years. But right I am glad he is on my favorite team. 

Todd: By the way, on a whim, while in Chicago for work, decided to catch a Sox game. The Angels were visiting. And I thought, “Let’s see what Trout’s all about.” So I see him in person once and all he did was his usual: hit a home run and make an absurd defensive play. You know, just a routine day for this kid. I’m a believer. I know it’s heresy to say this in D.C., home of Bryce, but Trout’s the most exciting player in baseball right now. We’re lucky in D.C. to have the second-most exciting.

Krauthammer: To my mind, no question: Miguel Cabrera is the MVP. Anybody who does something major — mindbogglingly difficult — that hasn’t been done since 1967 is automatically MVP — I don’t care if his team finishes behind the Astros or if some godlike rookie is (temporarily) denied the honor. The Trouter will win Rookie of the Year this year, and MVPs in many years to come. It has to go to Cabrera.

Futterman: If there was only one Rookie of the Year Award (as there was the first two years of the award 1947 and 1948) rather than separate ones for NL and AL, I would clearly give it to Trout. 

Todd: Trying to remember when there were two dominant rookies like Trout and Harper in same year like this who had such an impact on their respective teams. Not just great rookies, but tone setters.

Epstein: Maybe 1951?

Willie Mays: .274/.356/.472

Mickey Mantle: .267/.349/.443

Futterman: And Mantle did not win Rookie of the Year!!

Epstein: Mantle only played a little over half of the ’51 season in the majors. Another Yankee, third baseman Gil McDougald, won the award.

Todd: The Triple Crown has never been done in my lifetime. So I’d pick that historic accomplishment for my MVP vote. As for the other issue, let’s create a hitter-only award . . . then we don’t have this debate. The MVP should be open for any player. . . . I like the Cy Young, so let’s create the Babe Ruth or the Hank Aaron or whatever for the best offensive player in baseball.

Futterman: Not even close. Unless Trout has the most amazing legendary final three games and tie breaker to get Angels into post season — Cabrera the obvious choice. 

Epstein: When you hear or read sports columnists opine that experience is such an important factor in postseason success, does that strike you as being overly simplistic? (On a related note, the A’s are poised to enter the playoffs with a starting rotation comprised entirely of rookies. Has that happened before?)

Klein: In baseball, where getting into the postseason is truly all that matters (though of course the wild-card teams have a significant disadvantage starting this year), I’m beginning to think experience is a disadvantage. Witness A-Rod, and his overthinking at the plate that leads to pop-up after runners-in-scoring-position pop-up.

Maybe you need a bunch of kids who don’t know they’re supposed to be nervous. I’d take that attitude going in to a five-game series over veterans worried they’ll never make it back.

Housley: I believe experience does help. A-Rod is in his own head and we’ve seen that with other stars as well, but we’ve also seen stars completely shine. I think what helps the young guys is confidence that comes from the coaches and confidence that comes from seeing journeymen finally get their shot. Seriously, the A’s have a number of guys who have bounced around and might have been more likely to play for Yakult than in the playoffs. A young pitcher/player sees that determination, that desire, and it helps him appreciate the game more. Appreciate his opportunity. The A’s have a way of building ball clubs full of hustlers . . . and I don’t mean the type who run the pool table.

Epstein: From your vantage point, who understands statistical analysis better: journalists who work the politics beat or those who cover baseball?

Travers: Baseball writers — they are dealing with stats on a daily basis on a much more intricate level than political reporters are. Plus they have crazy fans who do the amateur sabermetrics at home who are calling them out on every little detail or error, because they have all the info right at their fingertips at home. We see polling results, voter-registration stats, demographic trends, but political reporters don’t crunch the numbers so much as analyze the results someone else has computed. I think you see more wonky numbers work from baseball beat writers because fans are calling for it and they have the data to do it.

Klein: I actually think baseball beat writers have a better grasp on statistics than journalists who cover politics — present company excluded, of course. Maybe it’s because baseball fans/writers have an intuitive sense of numbers that many political junkies don’t; I learned math from batting averages, not the Electoral College. Politics is also inherently harder to quantify, since the only real “games” are held in elections, and it’s hard to sort out the good polls from the bad. The best I can say for both groups of writers is that we’re getting better — and I think we can actually thank Nate Silver for helping us all out.

Hemingway: Well, my vantage point includes an education in economics, so I think neither group does terribly well. My worst newsroom experiences have been overhearing colleagues attempt to analyze numerical changes over time. But obviously baseball journalists do much better than those who cover politics.

Pretty much every new sports reporter of the last 15 years has had to dive pretty deeply into the sabermetric movement. Whether you agree with it as a tool of evaluation or not (and I don’t), if you don’t understand VORP [value over replacement player], or WAR [wins above replacement], or why BABIP [batting average on balls in play] matters, you’re not going to go far.

Epstein: Who is your favorite national baseball columnist? Similarly, who is your go-to local personality?

Hemingway: George Will is my favorite national baseball columnist. Tom Boswell has absolutely owned the story of the Nationals this year. And while he’s not based in St. Louis, my favorite guy to follow for all things Redbirds is Will Leitch.

Housley: My favorite baseball guys are Peter Gammons and Barry Bloom. 

Travers: I enjoy Jayson Stark’s columns — they can be enjoyed by a diehard or the person who just tuned in during a winning streak or the playoffs. Plus he’s from Philadelphia so his columns on the Phillies over the past few seasons have been fun to read — he understands the mentality of the fan base better than any national baseball writer.

Epstein: If you could make just one tweak to the game, what would it be?

Hemingway: Assuming we all agree about getting rid of the DH, I’d get rid of the wild card. My own team wouldn’t be in the postseason, but I still oppose it. A pennant race used to mean something. If you can’t get the job done in 162 games, you shouldn’t get extra chances. And with this change leading to two wild cards, the situation is worse. The Braves, for instance came very close to winning the NL East but now they could be eliminated by the Cardinals, a team that has no business even being in a position to eliminate them.

Klein: I used to love the infield-fly rule for its gentlemanly spirit; now I loathe it and want it repealed.

Why should you be rewarded with the guarantee of only one out if you hit a fly ball, with two or three runners on base, that doesn’t even leave the infield? You’re not similarly rewarded if you hit a sharp ground ball or a rocket of a line drive that leaves the defense a chance of turning two.

Think of the extra action if the runner has to go a quarter or half way — a game of chicken on the basepaths while the infielder decides whether to risk letting a sure out drop on the grass.

[Note: Immediately following the Cardinals–Braves wild-card game, in which the controversial application of the infield-fly rule in the bottom of the eighth inning hurt Atlanta’s chances of a comeback, I asked Klein for a follow-up comment. His response: “P.S. Braves fans, I rest my case.”]

Housley: I’d also make a few tweaks. I would be to ensure interleague play doesn’t expand any more than it already has . . . there’s something special about the separate leagues.

I would allow the A’s to build a stadium in San Jose. I’d also consider allowing the Rays to move to Brooklyn if they don’t get a new stadium in Tampa. I’d love to see three teams in New York again and I think it would spread the money out a bit.

Epstein: So which two teams make this year’s World Series?

Klein: I’m not making World Series predictions. I just won’t fall for that trap.

Hemingway: I’ll go with Tigers/Nats.

Travers: Giants/Yankees. Even with other teams surging, these two teams can figure out ways to win. Both teams beat my Phillies in recent playoff series so I know that firsthand the hard way. I’ll go with Yankees in six.

Krauthammer: No one has any idea. With all due respect, predictions will be 90 percent luck this time around. This is the price of parity. The NFL has had it for years. Baseball is finally getting some approximation of it, as teams are discovering that minimum salary spent on very young players — Oakland’s starting rotation is 80 percent rookie — is an infinitely better investment. The old money powerhouses — Red Sox, Phillies, Cubs — are loaded down with huge contracts (the Red Sox are beginning to shed some) are now being outmatched by upstarts like the Nationals, A’s, and Orioles. And the Yankees are getting old. This may be their last year before a rebuilding.

But that means that of the ten teams in the postseason, the differences between them are much smaller than the norm. Any of them has a chance in the roulette process that yields the World Series.

Whatever advantage there is lies with starting pitching. Probably the best are San Francisco and Washington. If Strasburg were pitching for Washington, they would be the National League pennant favorites. Without him, it’s a shootout. Cincinnati has formidable hitters, Atlanta is balanced. St. Louis is the most problematic.

Given that the top four teams have each a roughly equal shot, I’ll go with the Nationals for sentimental reasons.

American League: Yankees probably have a marginal advantage.

Yanks over Nats in six.

Epstein: Thank you to everyone for taking time out to participate. Enjoy the postseason! (In other words, don’t work too hard.

— Jason Epstein is president of Southfive Strategies, LLC, and a contributor to Right Field.

Jason Epstein is the president of Southfive Strategies, LLC. He was a public-relations consultant for the Turkish embassy in Washington from 2002 to 2007.

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