Sunday, June 29, 2008

Love and Baseball

Two weeks ago, the Baltimore Orioles swept the Houston Astros in a 3-game mid-week inter-league series played at Camden Yards. To the untrained eye, it was a wholly unremarkable occurrence. A team which is showing signs of improvement after a dismal decade won three straight games against a team which, by all accounts, is coming apart at the seems and headed for a well below .500 finish. I doubt anyone at ESPN even considered any of the three games for national tv coverage. And justifiably so. Boston Red Sox pre-game stretching has more of a national draw than mid-week Orioles vs Astros.

Despite what those who would jump at the chance to watch Kevin Youkilis limber up would have you believe, The Orioles-Astros series was indeed extraordinary. All three games had dramatic finishes. All three featured lead changes, timely hitting, clutch pitching and acrobatic defense. Most importantly, I watched all three games from the 3rd base-side lower box seats with my favorite Houston Astros fan. Though perhaps not the most conflict-free dating strategy (I doubt too many Roman boys asked Christian girls to go see Lions vs. Christians in the Colosseum) I am pleased to report that after three summer nights in Baltimore, my favorite baseball fan is still speaking to me.

In what may accurately be called PUSHING MY LUCK, I have decided to write about the series sweep. Over the next few days, I intend to weave my mental notes, our scorecards, and my occasional scribbled side-comments into a narrative which tells the story of 3 games, 3 dates, and 1 very very contented Orioles fan.

Good Players Don't...

... Do exactly what several of the Orioles' stop-gap solutions at key positions did this weekend during a gut-wrenching series loss to the beat-up, light-hitting, cellar-dwelling Washington Nationals.

Exhibit A: George Sherrill: Stopgap Closer. Sherill is 2nd in the American League in saves. Thats neat. But...He has an ERA pushing 4.00. He has allowed 47 baserunners (hits and walks and Hit batsmen) in 35 2/3 innings. Real closers do not allow almost 1 1/2 baserunners per inning. That today's abomination in Washington was only his 4th blown save of the season is indescribably fantastic. Sherrill must have the guardian angel of guardian angels. Somehow, teams have yet to discover the wonders of waiting for Sherrill to hang a curveball, something good closers also do not do very often but something for which Sherrill has a clear penchant. Under no circumstances does someone who has the requisite skill and make-up for closing major league baseball games walk a .260 hitter with 2 outs in a save situation and then hang a breaking ball to a .210 hitter for a game winning homerun. Thats something that washed up starters who are plugging middle relief holes in second division bullpens do.

Sherrill is 30 years old. He is not, therefore, a development project. If the Orioles are serious about rebuilding for the future, Jim Johnson, Dennis Sarfate, or anyone else with a long-term upside would be much better suited for closer-in-training duty than George Sherrill. Why Sherrill, despite his age and the myriad of flaws in his approach on the mound is the closer for a "rebuilding team" is beyond me. He makes a very serviceable reliever. Better than average even. But closer? Spare Us.

Exhibit B: Kevin Millar: Stopgap 1st Baseman. Millar is a likable guy. Great in the clubhouse according to most reports and he has provided a number of clutch hits during his seasons wearing orange and black. But... Millar is hitting under .240. He runs with the swiftness of a rusted Yugo sitting engineless in a rural junkyard. He is a dead pull hitter who
under no circumstances can hit behind a runner or, gasp, sacrifice bunt. When stationed next to first base with a glove on his left hand, Millar is an average first baseman. So average that he was ALWAYS replaced in late innings during the Red Sox title run of 2004 by the slicker-fielding Doug Mientkiewicz. Millar is now 4 years older and no more adept with the leather but still finds himself manning 1st base late in games. He let one through the wickets in extra innings this afternoon which, if facing a team with more than 2 major league caliber hitters, could have cost the Orioles the game.

Millar does not hit for enough power to justify his meager batting average. He does not provide the situational hitting or bat control necessary to justify the lack of serous power and low batting average. Simply put, if an opposing team finds itself situation like transpired today in the top of the 12th inning (runners on 1st and 2nd, no outs, and Millar coming up), their manager can rest easy knowing that unless gifted with mistake thigh-high fastball over the inside 1/3 of the plate, Millar will not, under any conditions, be advancing the runners to 2nd and 3rd or driving them in with a base hit. Millar would make a great platoon guy. Maybe even a good 1st baseman on a team that had 2 or 3 other legit power bats in the lineup. But, for Millar, who is 36, to be the everyday first baseman for a "rebuilding team" is just not right.

Exhibit C: Melvin Mora: Stopgap 3rd baseman. The Tagalog word for cheap is mura. When I was studying that language I remembered mura by telling myself "The Orioles can't afford a real replacement for Cal Ripken so they're settling for Mora cuz he's Mura!" Mora is no longer Mura. Signed through 2009, he is making all-star money while batting well under .250. Mora is now one of the last remaining vestiges of the teams in 2002 and 2003 which, like the every other Orioles team in the past decade, finished 4th and lost more than 90 games. Mora was one of the bright spots on a couple of those awful teams. But, like so many other once above average players who have entrenched themselves in an organization, Mora has now become an albatross around the neck of the Orioles as they try to rebuild, re-tool, and return to contention in the AL East.

Mora is hitting a cool .230. Thats just about 100 points lower than where he was 5 years ago. 100 points that divide an All-Star from a liability. Mora bats behind the franchise's best hitter, Nick Markakis. He is Markakis' protection in the lineup and he's hitting .230. No amount of loyalty to players, thankfulness for his years of hustle and contributions, or any other positive quality that Mora can bring can disguise the simple fact that he bats 3rd, right behind Markakis and is hitting .230. Mora is 36 years old.

Did I mention he's hitting .230?

The reason for this quick analysis of 3 key parts of the Orioles machine is simple: barring a Three Mile Island-style meltdown over the next 2 weeks, the Birds will go into the All-Star Break as one of the surprise stories of the 2008 season. Praise for the MacPhail-led "rebuilding" efforts will flow abundantly from the mouths and pens of the baseball press. To be sure, the first half of 2008 has exceeded expectations by more than leaps and bounds. For the first time years the Orioles are providing the Baltimore baseball fans with a product worth supporting. But, lets not congratulate the front office on successfully throwing off the shackles of the "stop gap mentality" just yet. The 2008 Orioles, like the last 10 Orioles teams, are still sticking fingers in leaks rather than rebuilding their boat.

I will continue to root for the Orioles. I will continue to pay to see them play. And I hope that all of the players named above go on hot streaks as soon as i have clicked the "publish post" button at the bottom of my screen. But, when the time comes that an Orioles team is once again playing in a World Series and I stand in line to buy my tickets for the long-awaited event, I will buy a ticket for anyone reading this if the Orioles team which reaches the World Series still has Millar at 1st, Mora at 3rd, or George Sherrill at the back end of the bullpen.

Consider that a promise.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

It's Never Iffy if its Griffey

In the clubhouse after slugging his 60th homerun in September 1927, Babe Ruth shouted "60. Count em. 60. Lets see some other son of a bitch do that!"

We have no record of similar boasts when the Great Bambino eclipsed 600 homeruns for his career but, knowing the Babe, some sort of grand pronouncement may very well have followed that historic homer as well.

Ken Griffey Jr joined the 600 homer club earlier this week. The 600 club, once a super-exclusive secret society of Ruth, Mays and Aaron, has swelled in ranks in recent years but still remains open to only a very select membership. Griffey Jr deserves great heaps of praise for his career achievement.

The rising generation of young baseball fans never saw the classic Ken Griffey Jr, who, along with Frank Thomas, terrorized American League pitching in the 1990s and made regular appearances in the nightmares of an elementary school-aged boy growing up outside of Baltimore. On more than one occasion, i woke up in a cold sweat because my pleasant dream of the Orioles winning the American League had turned terrifying with the sudden and unfortunate appearance of Ken Griffey Jr in the batters box.

Despite the wild orgy of homeruns which defined the past 10+ seasons of big league ball, Griffey remains the only batsman to hit a ball off of the storied B&O Warehouse in deep rightfield at Baltimore's Camden Yards. Sure he only did it in All-Star Game batting practice. But still. A ball went from his bat to the bricks of the warehouse. No one else has managed that feat.

Griffey's early 90s popularity had to be experienced to be fully understood. He was on a Simpsons Episode. (Burns recruited him for the company softball team but before the big game, Griffey ended up with gigantism!) The cool kids on little league teams had Griffey's Nike cleats. We wore our hats backwards during infield and outfield practice to look like Griffey. He was, basically, the face of the sport. Think David Ortiz, but without the annoying association with the Red Sox. A quick youtube search brings the following gems:

Upper Deck


Nike again (This might have been the nightmare causer.)

He made an appearance on Fresh Prince!

Another Nightmare causer

Everyone makes a weird one


The Greatest Athlete Commercial Ever.

During my freshman year at Georgetown, James Carville came and spoke in one of the auditoriums on campus. Afterwards, the ragin cagin walked out to his car surrounded by a decent sized crowd of students. I was among them. I still don't know why I did it, but, when he turned my way as were were walking through campus I blurted out that I had loved the "Griffey for President" commercials. Carville busted out laughing, exclaimed "Wasn't that somethin!" and then went back to laughing. My moment with one of America's best political minds, and I talked about a Nike commercial. And the thing is, I stand by my decision. I can still see him busting up when i asked the question. "Griffey for President" was worthy of that moment!

The year prior to the Griffey for President campaign, Junior had teamed with Randy Johnson to take the seemingly doomed Seattle Mariners on a magical run through September to leapfrog the California Angels and win the American League West. Then, to the consternation of the sporting world, the upstart Mariners somehow knocked off the Yankees in dramatic fashion in the 1995 ALDS. All whispers of the demise of baseball in the great northwest were silenced.

Then the seemingly immortal Griffey became frail.

John Greenleaf Whittier left us with the immortal words "For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: It might have been." The legendary poet described Griffey perfectly. Since moving to Cincinatti in 2000, Griffey has yet to appear in more than 144 games in a season. He's had a couple of impressive summers, twice slugging more than 30 homers in a season for the Reds. But, a look at his numbers since he switched cities is enough to make even the man of the most stalwart constitution cringe. Oh what might have been had Ken Griffey Jr not fallen victim to the bubonic injury plague!

If Griffey had managed to club 30 homers in all of the seasons in which he spent significant time on the Disabled List, He would now be 2 shy of catching Willie Mays on the all-time list. 700 would be fully within reach for his career. Had Griffey sustained his late 90's production levels into this decade, we might well be asking ourselves now "Can he reach 800? Can he?"

We can only wonder!

Roll the Video 1 more time!

Monday, June 9, 2008

Old Faces

Quick Trivia Question: Who is the only major leaguer in history to hit 2 grand slam homeruns in a single inning?

Hint #1: He has a total of 93 career homers (so far).

Hint #2: He did not play a single major league game in 2004 and 2005.

Hint #3: He is currently a reserve outfielder on the New York Mets.

Hint #4: His name is Fernando Tatis.

On April 23, 1999, Mr. Tatis, then of the St. Louis Cardinals, smashed two grand slam homeruns in the first inning against Chan Ho Park of the LA Dodgers. The grand slam binge was a part of a larger gluttonous season for Tatis. He launched 34 round-trippers for the Cardinals in 1999, drove in 107 runs and batted a cool .298. Stardom was on the way.

Rather than joining the ranks of Aaron, Ruth, and Mays, Tatis instead quickly plummeted into the putrid abyss of one-hit-wonders. Move over Norman Greenbaum and Deep Blue Something. Tatis vanished. By 2001 he was in baseball exile playing before dozens of less-than-enthusiastic fans in Montreal. 2004 rolled around, and Tatis was gone from the major league ranks.

In 2006, Tatis took a small step up the mire of oblivion; he played a half season with the Baltimore Orioles. On a team lacking major league talent, Tatis saw some playing time and batted a modest .250. Then, back to the minors in 2007.

He resurfaced in May as a replacement outfielder on the sinking ship of the New York Mets. And, wouldn't ya know it! Tatis still has a little hero left in him. On May 28, he smashed a walk-off double to defeat the surprising Florida Marlins.

I had meant to write about Tatis soon thereafter, but, for some reason or another, didn't. I was reminded of Tatis (funny how my mind works) when another former Oriole crossed my path this past weekend. Armando Benitez has somehow found employment in the Toronto bullpen. On Friday night, Armando graciously repaid Orioles fans for a part of the pestilence he inflicted upon Birdland. As only he can do, Benitez threw a belt high fastball to Adam Jones in a 4-4 game on Friday which, owing to its location over the middle of the plate, was authoritatively whacked over the left centerfield wall. Orioles win 6-5. Thanks amigo! That Benitez and Jorge Julio are both receiving big league paychecks at present does not speak highly of the state of our national pastime.

I've said it once and i'll say it again. Blue Jays fans are now welcome to sing along: Having Armando Benitez pitch for your baseball team is like having Michael Jackson work at your day care center.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

33 Dollar Tickets

For the first time in my life, I purchased a Nationals ticket valued at greater than $15 this week. On Thursday night, I got to the new ballpark next to the Anacostia River a few minutes before the first pitch. The ticket line was pretty slow and upon reaching the front of the line, the gentleman behind the window explained that the cheapest tickets left in the house were in the over-priced $33 rightfield pavilion. After a long day of training at work, I needed my baseball fix, so, out came the credit card and 2 front-row tickets jumped into my possession.

By the time we reached our seats, the Nats had built a 2-0 lead on the visiting Cardinals. Maybe I've discovered the problem. The Nats are a get-what-you-pay-for operation. All these years I've been paying 5 bucks for tickets/accepting free seats and I've endured lots of bad baseball. (In fairness, there have been some dandies too. Like the night that RFK shook in 2005 as the Nats smacked Pedro Martinez around and chants of "Who's Your Daddy?" rang out from the upper deck.) But- i can't argue with facts: I shelled out for more expensive seats and the Nats offense received a 1.21 giga-watt shot of electricity.

Before the oppressive heat has even begun to cause geysers of perspiration to erupt all over my body, the Nationals bats have banged out 7 runs. After a Troy Glaus homerun in the 4th inning, The Nats answer right back with a run in the bottom of the inning to give the hosts a 8-3 lead. Get what you pay for indeed!

And then, as Sublime would sing, THATS WHEN THINGS GOT OUT OF CONTROL!

The Cardinals roared to life. The Nationals' bats cooled off. Still, the lead started at 8-1. At worst, i opined, the Cards will make things interesting. Wrong. Relief pitcher Mark Worrell tattooed a 3-2 pitch from Nationals hurler Tim Redding into the left field bleachers for a 3-run homer. Suddenly an 8-1 blowout had turned into an 8-6 contest.

In the bottom of the 6th, the home team loaded the bases with 1 out and failed to score. I wonder aloud if there is a noticeably lower winning percentage for teams which at some point in a game strand the bases loaded. Somewhere in the great heights of the blogosphere, someone must keep an eye on these things.

After a ringing double by Brendan Ryan with 1 out in the top of the 9th, Tony LaRussa electrified the Cardinal partisans by summoning Albert Pujols to pinch hit. Nationals temp-closer Jon Rauch struck the mighty Cardinals slugger out looking. 2 outs. I stood up in my seat. Oops. Skip Schumacher laced a triple off of the very top of the wall in left centerfield. Suddenly things were tense. An Adam Kennedy roller up the middle eluded the outstretched glove of Christian Guzman and the game was tied.

Going into extra innings, the Cardinals owned the momentum and wasted no time in continuing their rise from what a few innings ago seemed like a cavernous grave. Joe Mather fouled off a half dozen pitches with 2 out in the 10th before blasting a 3-2 fastball into the left field stands. For the first time all night, St Louis has the lead.

Enter Ryan Franklin. Christian Guzman greeted the reliever rudely with a sharp single to center. Then, on a 2-2 pitch, the previously homerless Elijah Dukes ended both his season long draught and the ballgame with a mammoth blast to centerfield. Nats win 10-9.

Maybe there was something to that get-what-you-pay-for idea.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Orioles-Red Sox

I went to a fight and a baseball game broke out.

No, Daniel Cabrera didn't go head-hunting again against the Red Sox. No, brushbacks thrown by Josh Beckett didn't empty the benches. The violence at Camden Yards on Friday night had little to do with the 13-inning Red Sox win over the Orioles. Thank $6 college student night in the left field upper deck. Section 378 turned into a war zone as Orioles faithful clashed repeatedly with visitors from Red Sox Nation. From the first pitch at 7:05 until the game ended just before midnight, a motley assortment of partisan rooters waged war all around me.

This is their story.

Round 1: Male-Female Couple in Red Sox Gear vs. Orange Clad Baltimore Local

The game started badly for the Orioles. Before the birds came to bat in the bottom of the first, Daniel Cabrera had already surrendered 2 runs on several hard smashes out of the reach of left-fielder Luke Scott. The natives got restless. Urged onward and upward by the good folks of the Coors, Miller, and Budweiser Brewing Companies, a group of patrons of Section 378 began verbal jousts with a pair of Red Sox fans seated in Row AA (the front row). One puffy partisan in Orange approached the Red Sox rooters and began hurling an acid stream of profane invective at the male in the pair. Leaning in as if to nibble on the gentleman's ear, the Oriole fan accused the Sox fan of performing anatomically impossible acts upon himself, David Ortiz, and, oddly enough, sheep. The listener endured the barrage admirably for several innings before the proverbial patience dam burst. Rising to his feet between his seat and the shallow railing, the Sox fan shouted an oath and toppled the pudgy pugilist with a mighty shove. Arms and legs attached to the flabby orange covered body flailed upward and the antagonist tumbled over his seat. Rising to defend the honor of his friend, a black-clad Orioles stalwart lurched towards the enemy combatant only to also be sent sprawling in the narrow gap between seats and railing.

Enter the stadium staff. The puffy fan in orange was the first to receive the heave-ho. In a show of civic participation, the Oriole partisans in the section began an immediate campaign of chanting and pointing at the Red Sox fan in order to secure justice. Responding to the popular pleas, the staff soon removed the Sox fan as well. In a bizarre twist, his girlfriend eschewed following the new martyr out of the park, instead opting to exit the section via another set of stairs.

Round 2: Girl in Green vs. Section 378.

She had exposed herself repeatedly while climbing back and forth over the front row seats in the early innings. Her jean skirt wasn't quite long enough to prevent a couple Brittney Spears moments. Her green t-shirt had "Green Monstah" emblazoned across the chest. By the middle of the game, her ability to construct complete sentences had been hopelessly drowned in a river of $7 Oriole Park beers. Moving into the Row AA seats vacated by the fallen heroes, the girl in green waged war on the Orioles rooters. Firing middle fingers into the air with the deftness of John Wayne shooting pistols in a gun fight, our friend drew the ire of much of section 378.

Angered Baltimore fans swarmed around the girl. Accusations of lewd behavior filled the evening air. A fan with his face covered in copious amounts of poorly applied mascara went in for the kill. Shouting and poking ensued as the girl battled mascara man and the fellow to her left who, thanks to an overdose of liquid courage, had a clear penchant for humping the air around the safety railing. The gentleman companion of the girl in green attempted to calm her ravings to no avail. Unaware of her actions, she proceeded to swipe the hat of a nearby fan, adorning her curly hair with a white Orioles cap. She moved down the row, trading insults and taking swings at another set of Baltimore fans further down in row BB. Returning to her seat and continuing to rant incoherently and brandish "the bird" our friend in green was shown to the exit by 2 of Baltimore's Finest. Her male friend followed sadly behind.

Round 3: Section 378 vs. "The Nerds"

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy warns readers that the 13th inning is a little late for fans to wave homemade signs in the air. In the top of the 13th, 3 Orioles errors gifted the visitors with a 5-2 lead. The sudden change in scoreboard fortunes emboldened a group of Red Sox fans in section 376. Enraged by their teams poor play and the brazenness of the Sox fans in the neighboring section, the Orioles fans of 378 responded with force. Row CC launched a long-range barrage of shouts of "nerd!" Councils of war convened to plot strategy for the destruction of the offending signs.

In the trenches of the stairs between the warring sections, the battle escalated. An Oriole rooter suddenly lunged for a vocal Boston fan, seized the man's hat and hurled it over the safety railing into the lower deck. The beleaguered usher tasked with the supervision of Section 378 rushed to intervene. Thanks to his timely mediation, violence was averted. Jonathon Papelbon's arsenal of pitches made short work of the deflated Orioles in the bottom of the 13th and the combatants rushed to the exits. The war was suddenly over. The tapestry of profanity and abusive language woven by the warring parties was seen drifting eastward from the left field stands towards the B&O Warehouse.