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Sizing up an unforgettable 2010 season

Jim Thome was a big part of why the Twins repeated in the AL Central.

Jim Thome was a big part of why the Twins repeated in the AL Central.

The summers always seem to fly by faster now that I’m working through them rather than relaxing, and while it seems like just yesterday that the 2010 Major League Baseball season was getting underway, Sunday marked the last day of the regular season. Crazy. It must be the odd-numbered years: in 2007 and 2009, I picked the World Series champions before the season started; in 2006, 2008, and 2010, I picked teams that didn’t even make the playoffs, with my pick this year, the Cardinals, starting strong but unable to hang on down the stretch.

I shouldn’t really be surprised though: the 2010 season was unforgettable in many ways. 2010 saw an unprecedented 5 no-hitters in the same season, including 2 perfect games within the span of a month. The only reason there wasn’t 6 no-hitters and 3 perfect games was the famous botched 27th out call on June 2nd, where Jim Joyce called Indians shortstop Jason Donald safe on what would have been the 27th and final out of the perfect game, admitting later that he blew the call. 2010 saw the rise of Jose Bautista, the return of Jim Thome, and a legitimate Triple Crown race in the National League between Albert Pujols, Carlos Gonzalez, and Joey Votto.

2010 also saw a return to the postseason of two teams who have each had long droughts: the Texas Rangers, whose last appearance was in 1999, and the Cincinatti Reds, whose last appearance was in 1995. The Rays, Braves and the Giants also return to the playoffs after shorter droughts, while the Yankees, Twins, Phillies return. My review of the 2010 season, as well as my preview of October 2010, otherwise known as the Major League Baseball playoffs, after the jump.

Anyone can understand the way I feel

As I write this post from a beautiful 90 degree day in Columbia, it’s only been three years since this:

April 7, 2007: Blizzard, meet baseball. Baseball, meet blizzard. Everyone else, meet a bunch of guys with leaf blowers to try and clear the snow away.

April 7, 2007: Blizzard, meet baseball. Baseball, meet blizzard. Everyone else, meet a bunch of guys with leaf blowers to try and clear the snow away.

My, how times change.

In any case, I’m excited for Opening Day. Heck, who am I kidding? I was excited for Opening Day back in February, which explains why I wrote my 2010 season preview back on February 18. Much has happened in those six weeks since spring training has ramped up, progressed, and is now winding down to a close, so here are a few things I’m excited about as the season begins.

  • Baseball season means summer. Except in South Carolina, apparently, where summer went ahead and started without waiting for baseball season. This is heresy. I mean seriously, what’s opening day without snow, freezing rain, slushy streets and players who want to be there less than the fans?
  • The Indians won’t be that bad. (I hope.) Overall, I’m pretty encouraged by what I saw in spring training from the Indians. Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner look good, and while I’m not convinced Jake Westbrook will look good against the other aces in the league, I think he’ll do okay in most of his starts. Fausto Carmona has looked solid too, and if he can keep up this form in the regular season the Indians will be in much better shape (and much better shape than I was hoping for).
  • Manny Acta wasn’t my first choice, but he’s growing on me. He’s already shown he’s not afraid to try some new things (batting Cabrera leadoff, starting Michael Brantley instead of a veteran left fielder) and he seems to relate to the players well (particularly the Hispanic players).
  • The season gets underway with a Sunday night game between the Red Sox and Yankees. Look, I bleed scarlet and grey, but the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry is without question the best in sports. It’s great theater every time these two storied teams get together and this year, with the Yankees defending their 27th World Series title, it should be even better.
  • Jim Thome is no longer on the White Sox. Or the Dodgers. Or any other team that I hate. He’s on the Twins, who are my favorite team in the AL Central besides the Indians, and it’ll make it easier to root for one of the classiest guys in baseball this year. If it’s not the Indians this year, I hope the Twins win the World Series. (Unfortunately, since the Twins lost Joe Nathan for the season, this will probably be quite difficult.)
  • Ozzie Guillen has a Twitter account. I may not like the White Sox (I blame A.J. Pierzynski), but I do like Ozzie Guillen both for his management style and his Michael-Richards-but-with-less-racism “what will he say next” attitude. Joe Maddon (Rays manager) is also on Twitter, but his tweets are all about “preparation” and “getting in the right place mentally”. I have a feeling Ozzie’s will be less politically correct (and therefore more hilarious).
  • Bobby Cox is managing his last season. The all-time ejections leader is hanging it up after this season and I hope he goes out with a bang. He’s definitely a first ballot Hall of Famer and one of baseball’s best managers (even if his choice in teams is abysmal).
  • I will finally see PNC Park. PNC Park is the home of the Pittsburgh Pirates and is widely regarded as one of the prettiest parks in baseball. I’m personally ashamed I haven’t been there yet, having lived a mere three hours from the city for most of my life. This year, on Memorial Day weekend, no less, that will be corrected.

And frankly, one of the things I love about Opening Day is that for one day, everyone’s equal. There is no head start, there is no entitlement, everyone starts at 0-0. Optimism springs eternal. So while the rest of the season I’m happy with around .500 for this team, on Opening Day, we’re allowed to dream.

Will the Indians win the World Series? Probably not. But maybe. Because on Opening Day, everyone starts fresh. So maybe.

I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain

Like every winter, I’m anxious for this one to end. Not particularly because it’s been cold here in Columbia, SC, but because the end of winter means the beginning of baseball season. Pitchers and catchers for many teams reported to Spring Training today, and while the Indians aren’t required to report until next week, many of them are in Arizona already preparing for the upcoming season.

Which is why, when I read the title of this article, I smiled a bit and started to read.

My brain is hanging upside down

1977 was a tumultuous year for the city of New York: the soap opera feud between Billy Martin, George Steinbrenner, Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson and other Yankees dominated the baseball season, the upcoming mayoral election promised change, and the record-setting climate led to a major blackout and riots.

Oh, and the “Son of Sam“, arguably the most infamous serial killer in history, rampaged the city.

All of this sets the stage for Jonathan Mahler’s book Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning, and from that, the ESPN mini-series Bronx is Burning. I’ve seen the series before but recently acquired the DVD set and below are a few of my thoughts.

Bronx is BurningWhile the series is primarily about the Yankees and their pursuit of the first World Series in the Steinbrenner era, the Son of Sam subplot is substantially and capably covered. What sets Bronx is Burning apart is the way they interweave the two stories: Steinbrenner is shown (in typical fashion) worrying about the Son of Sam scaring off fans, and the detectives on the Son of Sam case are shown working on reports while half-watching the Yankees grind through their season.

Speaking of Steinbrenner, Oliver Platt’s portrayal of the eccentric, obsessed owner is simply a joy to watch. Platt not only nails the accent, but he nails the facial expressions and body language too. It would have been easy to paint the picture of Steinbrenner as a demon, but Platt makes him a very believable guy who wants to win, no matter what the cost. Even his costumes are excellent (particularly the suit with white shoes, and the suit with the turtleneck sweater).

Steinbrenner’s main rival, Billy Martin, is played by John Torturro, who also excels in his role. Scenes which Steinbrenner and Martin share are easily the most compelling, and that’s due in large part to Torturro’s ability to mimick Billy Martin’s bi-polar personality. He comes across as extremely passionate and extremely old school, a guy who doesn’t like the prima donnas generated by athletes (one in particular) in the 70s (wonder what he’d think now?).

(Interesting sidenote: Howard Cosell, the man who originally said, “ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning” while calling Game 2 of the 1977 World Series, was played by John Torturro in another great docu-drama, Monday Night Mayhem.)

Reggie Jackson (the aforementioned “one in particular”) and Thurman Munson are also tremendously cast and played, and the two actors do a great job of being almost complete opposites, setting the tension for many of the conflicts in the series.

Another thing I liked about the series was how it mixed in 1977 era video in with the new video. Most of the baseball action shown is from 1977 video, but rather than show the faces of the real players, the modern video is edited in nearly seamlessly and with no distraction. While most of the modern video looks authentic (great set design and props), the baseball video is a little bit suspect, as it appears to be shot in front of a green screen. But let’s be clear: this isn’t just a story of the players on the field, it’s a story between players on and off the field, so while a larger budget could have made the baseball video more believable, the compromise they made works very well.

Finally, since 1977 was around the birth of punk, The Ramones are heavily included in the soundtrack during montages, while an understated score is present for the Son of Sam murders and investigation scenes. The music choice is excellent, giving the impression of an ominous present but a hopeful future. If you’re a baseball fan, if you’re a history buff, or if you’re a fan of New York, you owe it to yourself to watch this incredibly enjoyable mini-series.

Wake me up when September ends

Albert Pujols

Today is August 27th, which means football season is nearly upon us. More importantly, though, we’re just over a month away from the baseball postseason. It’s been a pretty odd season (actually, it’s been a pretty odd month of that season), so I figured I could look back at my predictions from before spring training and see how they’re stacking up. In fact, I’ll be classy about this and get started…wait for it…after the jump! (I’ve always wanted to say that.)

The launchpad in New York

The big story that emerged out of baseball this weekend is that the new Yankee Stadium is a launchpad. Buster Olney, a guy who I normally agree with, wrote the article I linked, and he does give some pretty hard evidence that the new stadium is homer-friendly: in the first four official games, plus the first two unofficial games, there have been 28 home runs (the article was from yesterday morning, the Indians and Yankees totaled 3 home runs yesterday). For those of you keeping track at home, that’s more than four home runs a game. (To put this in perspective: in the 2007 season, 4,957 home runs were hit in Major League baseball games during the regular season. That’s 30 teams, playing 162 games, divided by two for overlap (someone correct me if my math is wrong, but I think I’m right) to total 2430 games. This means that in 2007, there was an average of just about two home runs per game.)

But here’s a thought: ever considered the fact that the Yankees pitching (and the Indians pitching, to a lesser extent, for that matter) is just bad? Remember the Indians of the late 90s? Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Eddie Murray, Matt Williams and others led the Indians to winning seasons because of their offense. The pitchers consisted of starters like past-his-prime Orel Hershiser, flash-in-the-pan Jaret Wright, that-guy-from-Geneva Brian Anderson, past-his-prime-part-deux Dennis Martinez and others. (Oh yeah, I almost forgot not-even-steroids-can-save-you-now Jason Grimsley.) In the bullpen, Paul Assenmacher (probably the best of the bunch), Eric “Ker” Plunk…and the biggest goat of them all, Jose Mesa.

Anyone noticing a trend here? In the 90s, Jacobs Field was a hitters park because the Indians lineup had at least two Hall-of-Famers, probably three. The guys I mentioned above have over 2000 home runs between them. They know how to hit.

But what happened in the 2000s? The Indians got some pitching! CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Jake Westbrook, Bartolo Colon, and others forced opposing offenses to manufacture runs the old fashioned way, because you weren’t going to hit many home runs off of these guys. On the other side, since the Indians could no longer afford Hall of Fame power, they settled for the likes of Grady Sizemore, Victor Martinez, Travis Hafner, etc. Grady Sizemore is the only one out of that group who might hit 500 home runs in his career, and he isn’t even a power hitter! With good pitching on that side of the ball, and back-to-earth hitting on the other, Jacobs Progressive Field has become a pitchers park.

Now back to Yankee Stadium. First of all, it’s early. This stadium will probably be standing in the Bronx for another fifty years. That’s 8100 4050 games, assuming the Yankees never make the playoffs. You can’t judge how the ball jumps off the bat based on four games. The wind might have been weird for that series, space aliens might have taken an interest, who knows. The point is, the sample size is too small to make such generalizations.

Secondly, I know this might be hard for Yankees fans to believe, but it’s possible that your pitching just isn’t that good. On Saturday, during the Indians’ 22-4 drubbing of the Yankees, Indians hitters teed off against Wang (whose sinker is completely flat), Claggett (who was making his major league debut), Ramirez and Veras. Of the six home runs, three of them went to right field, and three of them went to left field. If the ball carries so much to right field, why did the Indians have no problem hitting them to left? (The hitters that hit them to left were DeRosa, Choo and Hafner. Choo and Hafner are left-handed, so they hit the ball the other way, and Choo hit his to left-center, a longer shot.) And if the ball was carrying in both directions, why didn’t the Yankees hit six home runs and score 22 runs?

Occam’s razor suggests that the solution to this problem is that the Yankees pitching was just worse than the Indians on Saturday. Before we go jumping to the conclusions “it’s the park, it’s the park! There’s no way they could spend $300 million on free agents and still stink! Who are they, the Mets?”, just remember that we’re four games in, and the new Yankee Stadium has a lot more games left to be played.

EDIT: Math correction.

Opening night

Right now, I’m sitting on my couch in my apartment, waiting for the TV to switch from SportsCenter to Baseball Tonight to the very first pitch of the season. It’s the Phillies vs. the Braves, which isn’t a matchup I have much interest in, but baseball is baseball, and watching tonight’s game will get me three hours closer to tomorrow afternoon.

The expert picks are in at ESPN, and it seems the trendy picks are the Rays in the AL and the Phillies in the NL. While I think the Rays are a good team, I’m expecting a bit of a letdown there – not only is the entire division around the Rays stronger this year, but you don’t get years like the ones the Rays had in 2008 every year. Boston made some minor acquisitions, including John Smoltz, but have largely stood pat. They’ll be relying on Mike Lowell to make a full comeback, David Ortiz to shed a few years and become the David Ortiz of old (not likely) and Dustin Pedroia to keep hitting like he’s NOT 5’9″. We’ll see.

The Yankees are certainly the team that’s most improved, and as long as they don’t stumble too hard out of the gate it’s hard to see them not making the playoffs and once there, winning it all. That said, I thoroughly look forward to Grady Sizemore hitting the first ever home run in the new Yankee Stadium off of CC Sabathia, on the way to a 15-0 Indians win.

As for the Indians, I think they had a good camp with no major injury setbacks and have a chance to have a good season and surprise some people in October. I think it’ll be crucial to get off to a good start (i.e. a winning month in April), and while there are a lot of factors and things that could go wrong, the Indians have a lot of depth available at AAA Columbus. The important thing will be for the Indians to know when to use it.

In the national league, I think its more wide open. The Phillies are being picked by a lot of experts as repeats, but I think its unrealistic to jump to that conclusion, especially with Cole Hamels’ injury. Even though I picked them to repeat as NL champions in January, Cole Hamels’ injury changes a lot, and it’ll be important for the Phillies to get off to a decent start and hold their own until their ace gets back.

In just 36 hours, though, every team will have played at least once and we will have began to watch this speculation turn into results. Here’s to a great season!

Americana 2009: My annual list of baseball parks to visit

Since an unexpected opportunity arose today to take a trip to the Baltimore/DC area, I decided that today I would finalize my list of baseball stadiums to visit this year. To review, last year I visited:

  • Progressive Field, Cleveland Indians, Cleveland, OH
  • Great American Ballpark, Cincinatti Reds, Cincinatti, OH
  • Shea Stadium, New York Mets, Flushing, NY
  • Yankee Stadium, New York Yankees, Bronx, NY

I planned on visiting a couple more, but at least I was able to see Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium before they closed. This year, hopefully with a little bit more disposable income, I’ll be able to visit the following stadiums:

  • Progressive Field, Cleveland, OH. Sort of goes without saying, but I hope to attend quite a few games at Progressive Field this year (and hopefully the Indians will be a fun team to watch at home this year).
  • Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Baltimore, MD. Since my mom will be taking a trip to the Baltimore area in May, the opportunity seems perfect to visit one of the more important stadiums in baseball. Camden Yards was only built in 1992, but more importantly was the first stadium to go for the retro, one-purpose feel, as opposed to the multi-purpose doughnut stadiums of the 60s, 70s and 80s. The Orioles haven’t been competitive for years, but the park is consistently ranked high in terms of customer experience and from my early scouting, tickets are a good value.
  • Nationals Park, Washington, DC. Until Yankee Stadium and Citi Field open in April, this is the newest park in baseball. Similar to the Orioles, the Nationals aren’t very competitive so it’s likely that prices will be reasonable. I haven’t been to DC since 8th grade (which seems hard to believe, it feels like I was just there recently), so that’ll be fun too. This park would be lower on my list, but since I’ll be around there in May, it seems like a good opportunity to knock it off.
  • Busch Stadium, St. Louis, MO. I’ve always been a casual fan of the Cardinals (mostly because of Albert Pujols and Tony LaRussa) and St. Louis is a great baseball city. Prices here are less reasonable, as the team is competitive and the people of St. Louis are baseball-obsessed. I’d like to visit in July sometime, for an ultra-American, ultra-traditional summer’s night of baseball.
  • Kaufmann Stadium, Kansas City, MO. As long as I’m out in Missouri, might as well see the other great baseball stadium. Renovations are being done now that should make Kaufmann Stadium even better than before. If possible this is a team I wouldn’t mind seeing the Indians play on the road, since the Indians have a high chance of winning and the Royals fans are said to be the nicest in baseball (I guess you can’t really afford not to be, at that point).
  • PNC Park, Pittsburgh, PA. To think, if the recession had happened a couple years ago, PNC could have bought the naming rights to Jacobs Field and we could have had TWO PNC parks. This is probably the best value out there, at least for me – the stadium is only three hours away, the team hasn’t been competitive in nearly twenty years, and the people in Pittsburgh are a bit preoccupied with their football these days. I’m targeting an August visit for this park.
  • Fenway Park, Boston, MA. I’ve been to Fenway Park once, but it was when I was less interested in baseball and I’m not sure I appreciated it as much as I could have. Also, I was there in June last time – this time, I’m going for a September game. As far as tradition, it doesn’t get much more traditional than Fenway in September. It’d be really nice to get a divisional showdown between the Sox and Rays or Sox and Yankees (yikes, that just sounds dangerous), but any game in September would be good.

Overall I’d be pretty happy if I knock these stadiums out this season, but if I don’t get them all that’s okay too. For 2010, I’ll definitely look to visit New York again and see the new stadiums, and then I’d like to go out west to Colorado, Texas, or maybe even California.

Anyone want to share gas money?

The stadiums in New York

So over the last weekend (long weekend, including Monday) my dad and I took a trip up to New York City and Cooperstown to visit Yankee Stadium, Shea Stadium and the Baseball Hall of Fame (in reverse order). As promised, here’s the write-up on my impressions of the two stadiums (check out the photos, too).

Yankee Stadium: Bronx, NY

Yankee Stadium is perhaps the most legendary venue in all of sports (except for maybe The Horseshoe). If you have watched ESPN at all in the last year, you know that this is the final season at Yankee Stadium and so I wanted to catch a game there before it was closed. Seats this season are in high demand – the ones closest to the field go for as high as $2500 a seat. Our seats were 1/100th of that, but still had a pretty nice view:

Yankee Stadium

One thing that you don’t see in the pictures are the concourses. Both stadiums had narrow concourses (as most are in old stadiums) but for some reason Yankee Stadium’s seemed a lot less claustrophobic. The concourses in Yankee Stadium had the appearance of a New York subway station, which was a nice touch.

We weren’t able to see Monument Park – for some reason it was closed just after we got to the park. There is a picture of it from afar in my gallery.

Apart from that, I feel Yankee Stadium is the absolute best place to watch a baseball game, in terms of atmosphere, history, and the fans – in fact, it might be the best place to watch a sporting event period.

Shea Stadium: Flushing, NY

Shea Stadium is also in its final season, but because no one is really going to miss it, it’s not quite getting the attention. Whereas Yankee Stadium is a park that is completely designed for baseball, it’s apparent that Shea Stadium was also designed to play football and the shape is a little unnatural. The prices at Shea were also a little higher – a hot dog there costs $4.75 compared to Yankee Stadium’s $3. Overall, I was a bigger fan of Yankee Stadium than I was of Shea, but the seats at Shea were pretty nice too:

Shea Stadium

New York photos

For those of you who are interested, photos of my trip to New York. I’ll post a full write-up soon.