For the Cubs, nothing’s been accomplished yet

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On this day off between the end of the regular season–where the Cardinals played all 162 games–and the postseason–where the Cardinals will watch it on TV like the rest of us–a few thoughts are in order.

That dig at the Cardinals sounds a bit petty, but the truth is I’m glad the teams will not meet in the postseason. The Cubs finally ended the Cardinals’ three-year run on top of the NL Central in 2016, and there’s no possibility of a rematch from last season, either. So enjoy the offseason for a change, Cardinals Nation.

Winning 103.5 games in the regular season was a feat I haven’t seen before, and may not ever see again. It was wonderful seeing triple digits in the win column, because they showed up on the other end of  the spectrum back in 2012, when Theo Epstein and his crew began the Cubs’ rebuild.

Bringing them all back for the next five years feels like a move that will cement the Cub’s legitimacy on the field, for as far as the eye can see. And the construction along Clark Street, to go with upgrades inside the ballpark itself, is another sign that everything is on the upswing near Clark and Addison Streets. “Ebullient” is not too strong a word to describe where this Cubs fan is at, two and a half seasons after being disgusted with everything they stood for. After all, everything changes in life.

The new facilities and the dynamic team on the field are designed to make the turnstiles spin and the cash registers ring for years to come, and that’s a great thing. But the ultimate prize hasn’t been achieved yet.

Division titles are great, and it’s the one sure way to punch a team’s ticket into the postseason. But this is also the sixth division title that I’ve seen as a Cubs fan, and all of the previous go-rounds in October haven’t ended well.

Again, 100+ wins in the regular season is a great feat, which I’m grateful to have experienced. Not since 1910 have the Cubs won so many times. And after three and a half seasons of losing-by-design, the wins now have a sweetness that I didn’t know about before. But it’s not the end of the journey, either.

A point could be made that winning the National League pennant and getting to the World Series would represent progress from 2015, and that would technically be true. But it also means that

  • we’ll hear about 1908 incessantly, in case we haven’t already, and
  • David Ross wouldn’t go into retirement with the ring his teammates want him to have, and
  • White Sox fans can harp on 2005 for one more season, and–most importantly of all-
  • an unknowable set of Cubs fans who are with us today will go to their graves without knowing what winning a championship feels like.

With all this in mind, the time is now, and Next Year is going to arrive this year. Because until that happens, Theo and his team haven’t accomplished a thing.

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Freel fallen

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At this time last year, former big league ballplayer Ryan Freel was probably hanging on by a thread. He had played in the major leagues, but had been injured many times and suffered several concussions.

We’re only just beginning to learn of the dangers of head trauma, and its role in bringing about a condition known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalophathy (CTE). Freel lived with it after he left the game, and didn’t get the help he needed in coping with it. Drinking didn’t help, either, but the damage had been done. Baseball had ground him up and spat him out. And if he had never played for the Cubs, I doubt I would have noticed it at all.

But he did play for the Cubs, briefly, and so I noticed after he took his own life last December 28. His family will be reliving it all over again, I’m sure, and they always will every time the holidays roll around.

I wrote two pieces about Freel for ChicagosideSports, one early in 2013, and the other just a few days ago, after his CTE diagnosis had been confirmed. The decision to ban collisions at home plate probably would not have helped Freel specifically, but it’s an acknowledgement that where contact can be avoided in baseball, it should be avoided. And that’s definitely a legacy worth celebrating.

Link to a post on ChicagoSideSports and in the Chicago Sun-Times

MLB Twitter

Baseball has been a big part of my life since the mid-1970s, which is as far back as I can remember anything. Twitter, on the other hand, has been in my life for just a few years. What better way to fuse the old and the new but to write about the two subjects together? That what I did, and the result is published today on ChicagoSideSports.

I’m at the point in life where Twitter seems like a fault line to me. People who don’t tweet, and have no interest in doing so, aren’t really getting social media, in my estimation. Tweets and those who send and read them are newsworthy anymore, and Facebook–while I actually know all of the people I’m friends with there–seems more and more limiting as time goes by. I’m not cool enough for Reddit yet, and some of the other media outlets (Instagram, Tumblr, and even Vine nowadays) don’t hold much interest for me yet. But when I want to learn new things online, Twitter is increasingly where I go.

MLB‘s teams have a lot of room to grow in this regard. And if this piece helps to point that out, that’s a good thing in my book.

The unbeatable Trever Miller

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Every old baseball card could tell a story, if you wanted it to. I have thousands of these things sitting in boxes, just waiting for me to pay some attention to them. And many days I have other topics that I’m more interested in writing about. But these things serve as my bulwark against running out of things to say.

Chances are that if you’re reading this, you’ve never heard of Trever Miller before. I hadn’t either, until I happened upon this card and read the verbiage on the back. The alliterative description of him as a “lanky lefty from Louisville” caught my attention, and so I gave his name a Google. As it turns out, he’s got what has to be the most impressive record that I’ve ever heard of, at least as far as pitching goes.

Trever Miller spent several years in the majors as a LOOGY. It’s a funny-sounding name, to be sure, but it’s also a very important role player for a big league club to have. LOOGY is a sort-of acronym for Left-handed One Out GuY (I said sort-of for a reason). These are guys who come in, late in a game, and face one hitter in order to hopefully end an inning.

LOOGYs–I think that’s the plural of the term– are relief pitchers, but without the dramatic flair of a closer, or even the reflected importance of a set-up man. These guys are like the cardboard sleeve that you put over a hot cup of coffee at Starbucks: unremarkable, and not something you think about very much, but just try getting along without them.

The nature of what a LOOGY does is to plug a hole. And when Trever Miller entered a game in San Diego in early August of 2006, he was just an 0-3 pitcher on an average Houston Astros team. He didn’t win that game, but he didn’t lose it, either.

Over the rest of that season, Miller didn’t lose a single game in which he took the mound. No big thing, really, because Miller’s job is to get outs, not to impact the game in any significant way. But still, every mound appearance is a loss just waiting to happen.

Miller managed to get through the entire 2007 season without taking a loss. And he repeated that trick for the 2008 season, as well. It wasn’t until late in the 2009 season that Miller’s luck finally ran out when he took the loss in a game against Colorado. To borrow a line from Bull Durham, “Some days you win; some days you lose; some days it rains.” And yet for three years, Trever Miller somehow managed to avoid the middle part of that proposition.

The best part of this story is that nobody was even aware of the record, not even Miller himself. It wasn’t until a writer named David Laurila noticed something in Miller’s statistics, and then asked Baseball Prospectus to do some research, that Miller’s record was identified as being a record to begin with. Imagine how it would feel if someone approached you and said you had set some kind of a record, without even knowing you were doing it. It must have been a confusing–and yet also thrilling–piece of news for him.

Spring training 2013 is just around the corner, and Trever Miller– now on the verge of turning 40–could get a spring training invitation from one of the teams in MLB. That’s what happened with the Chicago Cubs last season. But there are no guarantees that the Spring Training invite will lead to anything, either. Miller learned this last year as well, as the Cubs cut him and he spent his first season out of baseball in decades. It must have been an unsettling summer for him in 2012.

I’ll be keeping an eye out to see what happens with Trever Miller this Spring. Hopefully he still has some baseball left in him, but whatever the future holds, he’s got a record that might never be broken. And how many of us can say that?

It’s time for Chicago’s Civil War

Baseball and Chicago are just meant for each other. People sometimes say this is a Bears town, but in reality, there are just eight Bears games played in Chicago every year (ten if we’re really lucky). The Cubs and the White Sox, however, play that many games in a little over a week. And while 162 home games are played in this city each year, the six most important ones are the interleague ones. With apologies to the rest of MLB, these games are the ones that matter most.

The Civil War is an apt metaphor here, in the sense of North vs. South or even brother against brother. The battle lines are drawn, and anyone who claims they like both teams isn’t really a fan of either one. That’s just how it is in this city.

The White Sox hold the lead in the interleague games, and as long as they have a World Series trophy and the Cubs don’t, they have the last laugh. The weather will cooperate, and Wrigley Field will be packed with partisans on both side of the chasm that divides this city.

Only baseball forces Chicagoans into separate camps this way, but we accept these assignments willingly. We love the game, and we’ll keep coming back to it, whatever may happen on the field.  So bring it on!

Say it ain’t so

Unlike a lot of people who pay attention to these things, I was supportive of Ryan Braun’s recent MVP award. Matt Kemp of the Dodgers had a better statistical season than Braun–only a fool would deny that–but the award isn’t really about that. What the award is about is up to the individual voter, and that’s what makes it so controversial sometimes.

The bottom line for me is that making it into the postseason trumped stats that were amassed for a team that never got a whiff of meaningful games in August and September. The people who don’t buy this position, and feel that Kemp was more deserving of the award, are all over the revelation that Ryan Braun failed a drug test and is facing a 50-game suspension as a result. It’s certainly a setback for the game’s efforts to climb out from the muck of the Steroid Era.

Ryan Braun has embraced, as well he should, his standing as a role model for young kids. The “Hebrew Hammer” has a compelling life story, and his long-term contract in Milwaukee means that he will be a fixture in that community for years to come. And that’s why this is such a big deal for the game’s image. There’s no good reason why he should have synthetic testosterone in his system, and if it was, in fact, there it makes a mockery of those who play the game clean.

For too many years, the powers that be at MLB ignored the players’ use of these substances. Canseco, McGwire, Bonds, Ken Caminiti, Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, Brady Anderson, and on and on. What about Brady Anderson, you might ask? He hit 16 homers in 1995, 18 homers in 1997, and 50 in the year in between. Hank Aaron never hit 50 home runs in a single season, but Brady Anderson did. You need to have a strong sense of denial to accept that at face value.

My point is that Braun has disabused us all of the notion that testing has scared the users away. He is entitled to due process, and I want to believe it’s all a mistake. But that doesn’t seem likely at this point. We all have to accept–like the little kid who confronted Joe Jackson when the Black Sox scandal broke out–that people will cut corners, and do things in a dishonorable way, just to get ahead. It happens in life, and it happens in baseball too.

The power of making the playoffs

Once you get into the postseason, anything can happen. If you don’t believe that, you weren’t paying attention to the St. Louis Cardinals this year. They made it in with a single game to spare, thanks to the wild card format and the collapse of the Atlanta Braves, and then kept on fighting until the championship was theirs.

The postseason is the dividing line for teams that can say, with any level of credibility, that they had a good season. Perhaps the postseason didn’t turn out the way they wanted it to (and seven of the eight teams that got there can say that), but at least they did get that far.

When the National League’s MVP results were announced yesterday, they created as much of a stir as the American League’s did. Perhaps even more, because the controversy is still unfolding. Say what you want to about Kemp and the remarkable season he had, but his team finished 11 and a half games behind the Diamondbacks in the division. Why the half game? Because it was a rainout against the Washington Nationals, another team right around  the .500 mark. The game meant nothing, and so it was never made up. And that tells me something about the reason why Kemp didn’t win.

Would making up that game have helped Kemp’s cause? Not at all, and his numbers were pretty impressive as it was. But without a Prince Fielder backing him up–the way Ryan Braun had in Milwaukee–Kemp’s numbers didn’t translate into an MVP season. That’s the only reason he didn’t win, but it’s reason enough to make it stick.

The Dodgers have their own issues to sort out, but at least Matt Kemp won’t be going anywhere, with the $160 million that he just signed for. And can you really feel bad for a guy who will make that much money playing baseball? I certainly can’t.

Process of elimination

On the last night of the regular season, which seems like much longer than eight days ago, we were treated to a sensational night of memorable moments. Perhaps I’m being greedy, but the next thirty-six hours could give us even more moments like this, because three teams will see their seasons end, one way or another. It should be fascinating to watch.

It starts tonight, when the Yankees try to finish off the Tigers  and earn a spot in the ALCS against the Rangers. Whether they win or lose tonight, they have Curtis Ganderson to thank for being able to play the game in the first place. The catches he made in Detroit should inspire kids everywhere to want to save the game with their glove, rather than win it with their bat. The walk-off homer is nice (ask Evan Longoria about that), but making a play that saves runs can have just as much impact on the game’s outcome. Perhaps such a play will be made tonight.

Tomorrow night will feature a tasty 1-2 punch of DBacks at Brewers, followed by the Cardinals in Philadelphia. Both games probably won’t end within minutes of each other, as happened in the AL games last week, but the teams in the second game will probably find out which team they’ll have to face before they take the field tomorrow night.

My interest in these games is high, since last week’s game set the table–so to speak–for the postseason. Will Pujols have a chance to play in St. Louis again? Will tomorrow be Prince Fielder’s last game in Milwaukee? Will the games be blowouts, or will Mariano Rivera and the other closers be needed to finish out the games? I suppose we’ll know soon enough. But I already know that you can’t beat October baseball.

Wow. Just Wow.

If you ever needed proof of the magic of baseball, you got it tonight. “Thrilling” doesn’t even begin to describe these games. Tampa came all the way back tonight, and all the way back in the last month of the season, and now they get to keep playing games into at least next week. Boston let it get away from them–and the Braves did too, in the National League–and now both teams have an entire offseason to think about what happened to them.

Closers gotta close. Period. And Papelbon was on the verge, but he couldn’t get it done. The Red Sox fans then had to pull for the Yankees–the Yankees–to come through for them. And it didn’t happen. A better script could not have been written, unless you’re a Red Sox fan.

I wrote a piece today about the Red Sox and their fans, and I meant it when I said I feel bad for them for the heartbreak they’ve had in the past. And tonight must hurt like hell for them. My team played a meaningless game that I had no interest in, and their team was one out away from moving on to the postseason and saw it fall apart at the end. Still, I would trade places with them in a heartbeat, if it meant having two World Series titles in the last decade. They don’t want to hear this, though, so I’ll just leave it at that.

It’s going to be hard for the postseason games to top this night, but I’m willing to see if they can do it. I’ve always had great faith in baseball, and on nights like this, that faith is rewarded.

Winners go on, losers go home

No other professional sport comes close to baseball for sheer number of games played in a season. Playing (almost) every day, for six months plus the post season, shows that baseball is the American game. Football is too violent to play once a week, and the idea that NBA teams could play two or three games in a row in the same city is laughable. Although right now, they probably hope they get to play anywhere at all this season. But we’ll see how that works out soon enough.

Every baseball game is less than one percent of a team’s entire season. And a double in April counts the same as a double tonight does. So there isn’t anything terribly special, statistically speaking, about tonight’s final regular season games. And yet, these at-bats for the players, and these innings thrown for the pitchers, could make the difference between playing games this weekend, or hopping a flight back to wherever home is. The old saying “win or go home” really does apply to the Cardinals, Braves, Red Sox and Rays this evening.

These aren’t “playoff” games, in the sense that they’re still being played during the regular season. The MLB logo doesn’t appear on the tickets to tonight’s games, and there aren’t umpires down the first and third base lines. But the stakes are essentially the same as a playoff game, and the fact that they’re not head-to-head games makes it even more interesting.

The concept of watching the scoreboard, in order to see how the other team is doing, comes into play tonight like it rarely does at any other time in the season. Fans at the games tonight will have one eye on the field, and the other eye on the scoreboard. Scoreboards are put into ballparks for signage money, sure, but tonight they serve the purpose they were intended to serve. And that’s great for the game.

The wild card has made tonight’s multi-city drama possible, and the fans in whatever cities emerge victorious tonight–or in a playoff game, if needed–should be grateful that baseball has extended them a second chance. That doesn’t guarantee success in the playoffs, but it means that a long season doesn’t have to end just yet.

I’ll be watching tonight, and hopefully there will be something to write about in the future. To be honest, it would only be surprising if there wasn’t something worth writing about to come from tonight’s games. It’s as if we’ve started the post season a day early, and we’re all the winners for that.

I’m shutting down for the season, too

Maybe this practice has been going on for a long time and I just haven’t noticed it, but there seems to be a wave of players that are being “shut down” for the remainder of this season. Joe Mauer, Andre Ethier, Johnny Cueto, Chone Figgins, and several others have decided–or been told–that they won’t play again this season. And so here, on my forum for reaching the outside world, I am announcing that I, too, am shutting down for the rest of this season. MLB, I’ll see you again in 2012.

Why am I doing this? There are a few reasons, but the most important one is that we fans are still in charge of the game. The players I named above all get hefty paychecks from the teams they play for, not because the team owners are generous souls, but because fans like me (and probably you, if you came here from mlb.com/blogs) pay the ticket prices, buy the concessions, watch the games on TV, and otherwise take an interest in this game, to whatever degree possible.

But that love and commitment is not always reciprocated back to us. Teams have millions of dollars invested in certain players, and they want to be sure to get the services they are owed under these long-term contracts. Players have only a limited window to make what they can before they retire and make their living through card shows and whatever else it is that they can do.

The result of this thinking, if you have tickets to see the Twins play against the Royals at Target Field next week, is that you won’t be seeing Mauer, as you might have thought you were back when you bought the ticket. You won’t be seeing Justin Morneau, either. And Jim Thome, the sure-fire Hall of Famer you wanted to see one last time before his contract is up? Well, he was traded away some time ago. But hey, they’ll be lots of rookies playing, so make sure you buy a program when you come out to the game!

So I’m done for this season, too. It feels like an empty gesture, with my team out of contention and safely on the road until next Wednesday. And I crossed over to see one game on the other side of town already, so that’s enough until next season. I’ll probably keep up with my fantasy team until next week, but that’s it.

The memories from the games I actually went to this year (ticket stubs shown above) will have to last until next year. And the thought of next year will have to carry me through the fall and winter ahead. After all, that’s the bargain we make with this game.

Just ten more days to catch the Killers

I’ve been playing fantasy baseball, in one league or another, for about fifteen years. I think of it as a way to connect myself with the game as a whole, instead of just focusing on the one “real” team that I root for. And it works, on some level, since I sometimes watch games just to see one of “my guys” come up to bat. Or scrutinize a box score for something that has nothing to do with who actually won the game.

When it comes to fantasy baseball, it doesn’t matter what the final score of a game is. Managers just want their players to get hits, steal bases, and/or score runs and drive them in. They want their pitchers to go at least six innings for a Quality Start, and walk as few batters as possible to keep their WHIP down. And if I need to explain what a WHIP is (walks + hits per inning pitched), chances are you don’t play fantasy and find the whole concept weird. But I invite such persons to keep on reading, anyway.

The best part of fantasy–and this is true of any league in any sport–is the pre-season draft. Trying to bone up on who’s available, and choosing the players you want before somebody else snaps them up, is always a challenge. Sometimes, like in a bingo game, you can call out the name of the player you want, and others will let out noises to show their frustration that they did not get that player. Those are the best picks of all.

Just like in actual baseball, on Opening Day every team is tied for first place. The possibilities are endless, and every fantasy manager believes that the right moves can bring them into the winner’s circle. Some managers propose trades with others in their league, or watch the transactions on a regular basis to know which players are out there for the taking. Some scrutinize pitching matchups, looking for an edge over the others in their league. And others just let their teams go, and only make sporadic changes, such as when one of their players ends up on the disabled list.

The reason I bring all of this up, at this point of the season, is that the season is winding down now. Rookie call-ups are getting their shot–especially the starting pitchers–while some injured players, such as Minnesota’s Joe Mauer, are being “shut down” for the season. Some fantasy players, too, are losing interest in the game, as the NFL comes more into play. And, like it or not, fantasy football just seems to be more popular than fantasy baseball.

My fantasy baseball team goes by the name of  “Epic Winning,” in honor of Charlie Sheen’s springtime freakout. We’re currently in 9th place in a 12 team league, and the top eight teams will make the playoffs. Since the playoffs are arranged by seeding order, the eighth place team plays the first place team in the first round of the playoffs. I’m pushing like crazy, over the last few days of the regular season, to catch up to the team in eighth place in my fantasy league–known as the Stone Cold Killers–for the right to most likely be trounced by the regular season winner in the playoff’s first round.

Getting into the playoffs has become a binary activity for me. It’s either a “1” for getting into the playoffs, or a “0” for missing them. I’m picking up starting pitchers for one start, and then dropping them the next day, in the hopes that this strategy will get me into eighth place before the season ends. It sure beats lamenting another lost Cubs season.

Best of luck to all fantasy players as their seasons come down the final stretch.

#MLB got it wrong

For last night’s 9/11 remembrance game in New York, which was broadcast by ESPN and was basically the capstone of the 10 year commemoration of the events of September 11, 2001, Major League baseball got wind of a plan by the players. The full story is here, but essentially the Mets’ players wanted to honor the first responders of the NYPD and others by wearing their logos, rather than the Mets logo, on their caps during the game last night.

It isn’t like MLB and ESPN weren’t going all out anyway, with the pregame ceremonies and everything else. The players wanted to get in on it, too. A small gesture, but important for the city they play in and align themselves with. A no-brainer, right?

Apparently not. The powers that be in Major League Baseball–which is headquartered in New York City, I might add–sent Joe Torre out to deliver the news that this gesture would not be allowed. Then, they took it one step further, according to Mets’ pitcher R.A. Dickey’s tweets, by confiscating the players’ hats. So, unlike the actions of Steve Trachsel, John Franco, and the other Mets players who defied a similar mandate in 2001, this time MLB decided to be proactive in heading off any dissent from the players.

When I saw this story in today’s news, I thought immediately of the Steve Trachsel card shown above. Trachsel was a Cub for many years, and played for the Mets during the 2001 season and several years thereafter. And that’s where it gets interesting. The card above appeared in a set of cards put out by Upper Deck in 2007. More than five years had gone by since Trachsel and his teammates had worn these caps–consequences be damned–and this action was still making its way into baseball card sets. The “FDNY” jumps right off the card, and the reason why he has it on is clear to everyone who remembers that day’s events.

When this card was released, in the Spring of 2007, Steve Trachsel was technically a free agent. He could have signed with the Mets again, but there was no guarantee that he would do so. In fact, Trachsel signed with the Baltimore Orioles, presumably after this card came out, and a second card with Trachsel in an Orioles uniform was released later that year. But it seems as if someone at Upper Deck, with probably lots of Steve Trachsel images to choose from, chose to use an image from five years earlier, either to commemorate Trachsel for defying MLB’s rule, or possibly to honor the first responders themselves.

And now, with the memories and the pain of 9/11 brought to the surface again, MLB cut its players off at the knees. It feels petty on their part, and I will suggest that any negative reaction they get from this will be richly deserved.