Edition No. 17
July 30, 2009
As we near the two thirds mark of the season, it seems appropriate to take stock of where we are, how we got here, and where we are going. And, for most of us, that applies to life as well as the 2009 baseball season.
2009 has been an interesting year. After an early run by some “surprise” teams like KC, San Diego, and the Reds, reality has set in, and so has the dreaded reversion to the mean, and the teams with the best talent, other than maybe the Cubs, have asserted themselves, such that the standings look pretty much like I would have thought back in early April. The pennant races this season offer the promise of excitement down the last week of the season.
For HSL purposes, there is a little more wiggle room, because our “teams” are constructed differently, which makes for some interesting outcomes. One of our players can get on base lot, but his ability to score is dependent on his real world lineup, and, some nights, I am amazed that I can go 14 for 40 with 10 walks, and yet have only 3 or 4 runs and RBIs. . . but while our league is an imperfect system, it is great, and this year appears to offer one of the closest races to the finish in our 25 year history, with 6 or 7 teams having a legitimate chance to win it all.
On the pitching side, context is again paramount. Dan Haren is having one of the better seasons in memory, with 550 points in 20 starts (18 of which have been “quality” starts); at this pace, assuming 33 starts on the year (sounds about right, as Haren is slated to pitch tomorrow night in Arizona’s 101st game of the year, leaving 61 games or 12 more starts after tomorrow night). Despite his consistent dominance, he is “only” 10-5, and has been the victim of poor run support and even worse bullpen help behind him. He could easily be 13-0, 13-1, 14-1 at this point, and on his way to 25 wins. (Editor’s note – Haren battled the Phils tough but lost that start).
Despite the difficulties in replicating real world outcomes with our system, the “game” still holds remarkable appeal. I mean really, why else would Chuck be calling his lovely wife from a hotel lobby in New York City other than to make sure she swapped the right SP/RP’s into that day’s lineup?
For fun, I got the MLB “Extra Innings” package a couple years ago. I thought I might manage to catch a couple games a week . . . little did I know that I would end up spending a lot of nights (now that both of my kids are done with baseball/softball in high school, which was the focal point of our families spring, summer and fall evenings for the past 6-7 years) in the basement, literally channel-changing every 10-20 seconds to catch at bats of both hitters and pitchers that are on my team . . .in the immortal words of the Talking Heads: “How did I get here?”
The MLB package is great. You can follow your players, see them in action. You can follow other players. You get exposed to the “home team” guy announcers. You can spend almost every night during the summer with Vin Scully, if you’d like. There are worse options, believe me.
The best aspect of seeing so many games is that you get an appreciation for how hard the game is, and how beautiful it can be. The battle for the black is relentless. You learn players’ nuances and tendencies, and you can literally think along with the catchers and pitchers and hitters through the at bat sequences . . .you learn that in close games, winning and losing is often the thinnest of lines (it is usually NOT a matter of someone “stepping up big in the clutch,” or “not being tough enough to close the deal in a close game” – rather, it is usually decided on a good pitch that either gets a good hitter out, or results in a ground ball that is hit ok but not great, but finds a hole and plates a runner from second). The walk-off home run is fun for the highlight shows, but usually the game is decided by the mundane but critical little battles that are waged at the margins: on the corners of the plate, just off the sweet spot of the barrel, just inches in or outside of the outstretched glove.
The recognition of that reality leads to some profound insights, such as 1) this is the hardest game to play well consistently, because the competition is so good and so evenly matched; 2) luck is a much higher factor in baseball than in most other professional sports (if you don’t believe this, then check out the winning percentage of the worst baseball teams in any season versus the worst football or NBA teams); 3) luck evens out over time, but it takes a while, so patience is a key virtue.
As in money management, the biggest mistakes made are often made due to a shortage of patience and a lack of time horizon (which is free). Case in point: Wahoos could not wait (literally, according to Yahoo time) to drop Jason Bartlett, their last draft selection, to add Brett Anderson and get some pitching depth. Of course, Bartlett is having an insanely good (and totally unexpected) season, hitting about 80 points higher than his career average. This move has probably cost Team Wahoo somewhere on the order of 50-75 points. But not to worry, because we like Troy Tulowitzki better. But after a painfully slow start, followed by a hand injury, an intemperate, unjustified, and totally impatient “drop” was made, and Tulo has since been every bit the stud we thought he’d be coming into draft day. He hit his 19th home run tonight, on his way to 30 or more this year. And THAT is baseball – usually, when you make a mistake, you pay a steep price.
So with a bit more patience, Team Wahoo would have a strong SS contingent with the 7th and 9th best players at the spot, instead of having pennant hopes riding on Alberto Collapso, who to his credit has performed credibly, but hardly is a star.
Perverse as this may sound, the “fun” in the game is big because the frustration level can be so high.
The sun is beginning to retreat a bit from the northwest horizon. August is almost here, and for some, school starts in 3 weeks (incredibly). The trade deadline looms, and pennant races are heating up. The last third of the season awaits, and it promises to be incredibly fun and exciting.
The bunching of the HSL standings seems to be tighter than in most years. Luck and injuries will play a large part of the outcome.
I have rarely liked my collection of players more than I do this year, which is saying something, because I usually don’t take players that I don’t like (within reason – they still need to be reasonably productive). “Liking” is a hard thing to articulate, especially when in baseball. Why do we like the players we like? Is it team affiliation? Is it because we see something in them that we see (or wish we saw) in ourselves? What exactly is it?
For me, “liking” tends to be a combination of the following: 1) they are players that play the game “the right way” and at a high level; 2) they have something unique about them that sets them apart from the run of the mill players; 3) they strike me as the type of players that, if I owned a team, I would think would give my team the best chance of winning, given drafting constraints (drafting 6th in the HSL is no picnic).
My group is frustrating (I think I may set a record for K’s by hitters in a year; Mark Reynolds alone is on pace to shatter his own MLB record for K’s in a year (set last year at 204 – he might get 240 or 250 this year)), but all are classy ballplayers that play hard, hit well, take walks, and have pop. I tend to take many of the same players each year, and while at times the drive me nuts, they rarely disappoint, and they are my guys, and there is not a guy on my roster that I wouldn’t take again in a heartbeat (same could be said of all the HSL guys).
I actually met Mark Reynolds in late June in a hotel lobby in Cincinnati, after the DBacks lost 1-0 to the Reds (didn’t make the game that night as a work dinner ran long). He was sitting with his family (they are from Kentucky and had driven up to watch him play). I texted Max that I was sitting 10 feet from Reynolds who I have had on my team since he was called up to the DBacks in the second half of 2006. Max said “you have to introduce yourself” and I had met Reynolds cousin (a middle age gal) by chance in the hotel earlier that afternoon, and I told her and her husband that Reynolds was one of my favorite players. I caught her eye, she smiled, and I came over and introduced myself. Reynolds could not have been nicer or more humble. Reynolds’ college coach at UVA played at Creighton in the early 1990’s on CU’s CWS team, and UVA made the CWS this year, and a kid (Ryan Briggs) who plays for Prep lives a couple houses from us. We talked for 5 minutes and I told him that I know it has been a tough year for the DBacks, but I love how hard he plays every night. He could not have been more gracious or friendly, and he seems like the kind of kid all of us would be proud to be our son. He is the anti-Jim Edmonds – completely unarrogant, totally unassuming, a genuinely nice guy. It was a fun moment.
The DBacks lost the next day 2-1 (AZ’s lone run that day coming on a Reynolds home run). The next day after that, Arizona played poorly at Colorado, and Reynolds called out himself and his team. The Dbacks then showed a marked improvement over the next couple weeks. I will always be a Reynolds fan. My kind of person, my kind of player.
The race in the HSL seems tighter than in most years, and seems destined to go down to the wire. Injuries and pitching will be huge down the stretch. If you get NINE home runs in a night, that will help, but I like the Wahoos’ chances. They are my guys, they are imperfect, and despite some dumb managerial moves (in retrospect), I think the Wahoos have a chance to win it all. Cutting Bartlett on Day One, dropping De La Rosa (he has won 8 of his last 9), and the much discussed Tulowitzki cut (yikes . . .that one will be hard to swallow if the Wahoos come up short, but the guy could not even swing a bat when I dropped him, and now he has 19 home runs) will make it tough, but hopefully I can ham and egg guys like Seth Smith, Marcus Thames, and Josh Willingham (who would think you could start THREE Nats most nights and have a prayer . . .) and sneak in.
It may be my year though, because teams I like and follow have done better than usual. Dartmouth won the Ivy League for the first time in 20 years, making it to the NCAA tournament (bounced in games in the Regional, but a great season for the Green nonetheless). A GREAT HSL trip (focus) to the Granite State. Westside wins a RARE double – winning both spring and summer state championships. Maybe the Wahoos can add to the fun and steal an HSL title. Stranger things have happened.
And if not, c’est la vie (French for “whatever”). The fun is in the chase as much as it is in the destination. Winning is great, but it is the competition that defines and validates the winning, and for me, I would rather have played and competed and battled in the HSL and finished last, than just cheered from afar, and not been involved and risked and competed and put it on the line.
The Cubs have every SP/RP and lead the galaxy in appearances. The Monarchs hit NINE home runs a night. The Chiefs are sentimental favorites. The Tribe hangs in. The Jax have their usual magic, and the Highlanders will find a way to be in the hunt, somehow, some way. I wouldn’t miss it for the world. I would rather drop like a stone the last two months and finish last and endure the frustration than be 800 points ahead and not have the challenge of battling for the crown each day. Really. (well, ok, being 800 ahead with 2 months to play would be sort of fun). But honestly, I dread October because the HSL will be over for another season, and Draft Day won’t happen for 6 months. Shudder.
We are blessed to have baseball, and each other. There is an article on ESPN Page 2 (right by Bill Simmons) today about The Baseball Bucket list. Check it out. Some of the things on the list are silly and schlocky, but most are spot on, and many are joys only known to people who love the game and know it intimately. Happily, I have done most of the things on the list, and some of the things on the list are small joys that make my live fun and are among the things I love the most in life. We probably all have favorites on the list. Mine would probably include hitting with a wood bat (there is almost nothing better than the sheer pleasure of squaring up a ball with a wood bat), playing pepper (with my kids) in my front yard as it gets dark, sitting in a ball park and watching a game (at any level – from an MLB game at Coors or Fenway or Citi Field down to catching a few innings of a Legion game at the field in Cooperstown).
We are nearing the 7th inning stretch of this season, and of our lives. We owe it to ourselves to savor every pitch, every at bat, every opportunity, every game, every day.
Enjoy it, focus, and revel in the game. WHFW TB