The Battered Bastards of Baseball

 Image result for tim tebow terrible

                   The Battered Bastards of Baseball

                                  ****

 

          Tim Tebow is one of the most famous sports figures in America.

          He is best known for being Christian, but he actually plays sports from time to time as well. Tebow was a star quarterback for the University of Florida. Then he was a lousy quarterback in the NFL. 

          This year, he made headlines with his unusual decision to become a professional baseball player. The media scoffed. I scoffed. But, strangely enough, Mr. Tebow is doing all right. He is a productive starting Outfielder for the St. Lucie Mets, a single-A affiliate of the New York Mets.

          At work the other day, a guy who saw a Tebow story on ESPN stated that Tebow is living the good life, getting paid well, and is one step away from the Major Leagues. None of that is true.

And that’s when it hit me: most people – even most sports fans – don’t know anything about Minor League baseball.  

          The annual MLB Draft has 40 rounds. A kid who is drafted is, at best, a few years away from getting to the big leagues. More realistically, he will never come close. For every Major League team you have heard of, there are at least four minor league teams that you’ve never heard of (AAA is the highest level, single A is the lowest).

          The reason why even baseball fans don’t care about Minor League baseball is that affiliated minor league teams are little more than soulless corporate factories that help a few gifted kids become Major Leaguers and weed out the Tim Tebow-esque 90%.  

         

In 1972, every single minor league team in America was affiliated with a Major League ballclub. In 1973, every team was affiliated except one.

          “The Battered Bastards of Baseball” is the joyous, upbeat story of the Portland Mavericks.

          In the 1960s, Bing Russell (Kurt Russell’s dad) was best known as the Deputy Sheriff on Bonanza. But though he liked acting, he loved baseball.

Bing Russell used his own money to fund astoundingly serious and nerdy baseball coaching videos meant to teach fundamentals to little leaguers. Multiple Major League managers showed Bing’s tapes to their own players.

          When Russell founded an unaffiliated club in Portland, Oregon, the baseball world assumed that it would fail. Every other minor league team in America consisted of players drafted and paid by Major League clubs. How would The Mavericks find players? And compete?

          Bing Russell put an advertisement in The Sporting News announcing open tryouts. Five hundred men showed up. Russell himself selected the twenty-five best. Not the youngest. Not the strongest. Not the most physically gifted. The best.

          They competed pretty darn well. In their very first game, the Mavericks pitcher threw a no-hitter. And that set the stage for years of consistent dominance by the upstart Portland team.

          Their philosophy was to run the bases hard, take chances, be ridiculous, and have fun. While every other club in their league lost their best players to AA, the Mavericks became a tight family – all working hard to impress their baseball-savant boss.

          Minor League baseball is so uninspiring that the only minor leaguer that you have even heard of is a washed-up Quarterback.

           It doesn’t have to be that way. Following a baseball team is one of the most wonderful things about being an American. You get to share a magical summer with guys that you care about, watching them play a sport that you love.

“The Battered Bastards of Baseball” is the feel-good baseball movie of the year. Watch it on Netflix tonight. (you know, after the game).

Judge-Ment Day

Image result for aaron judge

It’s Almost Judge-ment Day

Last year at this time, The New York Yankees were not a good team. It looked like the Evil Empire had finally been conquered by Father Time and bad long-term contracts.
They were below .500. Even worse: they were boring, unlikable, and sad.
The gloom that had enveloped Yankee Universe was palpable. If the other team loaded the bases in the first inning, Yankees radio voice John Sterling would say: “We had better hope that Pineda doesn’t let two of those runs score. If he does, the Yankees will never be able to come back.”
And he was right. Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez were washed up. Chase Headley and Aaron Hicks looked lost. And the whole team was lethargic and slow.
The Organization needed a change, there was no denying that. So what did the front office do? They signed some big money free agents….NO!!! Not this time. This time, the New York Yankees did the right thing. They got younger.
A-Rod was forced into retirement. Teixeira retired on his own. Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann got traded. It’s a whole new team. Fewer big names, fewer bloated contracts, and a lot more fun.
The Evil Empire has fallen. The Baby Bombers Era has begun.
The Yankees front office took its first step on the road to franchise sanity back in 2013. That year, the Red Sox unwisely signed Dustin Pedroia to an eight year contract extension. That contract looks okay now, but it won’t when the Sox have a broken down 37 year old infielder in 2021.
New York did not make the same mistake; they said good-bye to their aging franchise 2nd baseman – Robinson Cano.
To be fair, Cano is playing well for Seattle. But the Yankees’ 2nd baseman – Starlin Castro – is playing just as well. And Castro is 7 years younger and is playing for a fraction of the money on a shorter contract.
Starlin Castro is actually the high-paid elder statesmen on the team’s core of young stars. Power-hitting catcher Gary Sanchez is making the league minimum at age 24. The face of the franchise – Aaron Judge – just turned 25.
In contemporary MLB, scoring a big free agent signing is a sure way to make headlines. But drafting and trading for young talent is the way to win a championship.
During that same fateful winter of 2013, the Yankees took a chance on Aaron Judge.
Judge was chosen late in the first round. More than 20 other teams passed him over, and it’s easy to see why. Judge is 6’7’’ 280 pounds, and position players aren’t supposed to be that large. Athletes that size become tight ends, not outfielders.
As all baseball fans know by now, the Yankees made the right decision. Barring injury, Aaron Judge is going to be Rookie of the Year. And he’s on his way to becoming the league’s premier power hitter.
His size gives him a unique skill set. Pitchers are used to being able to fire high fastballs at hitters, creating a swing and miss, a foul back, or a pop up. Aaron Judge hits high fastballs out of the park.
Pitchers are used to being able to jam hitters with inside fastballs. Generally, the best a batter can do with an inside fastball is pull his hands in and shoot the ball to the opposite field – Jeter style. Aaron Judge is able to shoot the same inside fastballs to the opposite field – and over the fence in right-center.
It’s not that Judge has discovered a new style of hitting; it’s that Judge is a giant playing in ballparks that were built for mortal men. That’s why he leads in the league in home runs.
Don’t worry, Red Sox fans: Judge will probably slow down. History dictates that he can’t continue hitting at this torrid pace.
You had better hope he slows down. And that Sanchez, Castro, Hicks, and Didi Gregorius aren’t as great as they appear to be. If they are, The Yankees are a dynasty in the making.
It’s almost Judge-ment Day for the AL East.

No No: A Dockumentary


No No: A Dockumentary
***1/2
Drugs destroyed baseball.
Cheaters like Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds transformed dirty needles into home runs at the expense of fairness and decency. To this day, A-Rod continues to sully the record books with his drug-tainted milestones.
I don’t believe any of that.
When people denigrate modern baseball, their implication seems to be that MLB before steroids was a time when clean, wholesome players competed like respectable gentleman.
The outrageously entertaining, family-unfriendly documentary “No No” shines some light on the drug-fueled truth about Major League Baseball in the 1970s.
The title refers to the both the subject – All-star pitcher Dock Ellis. And his most famous achievement – throwing a notorious no-hitter.
How the heck do you throw a notorious no-no? This is how. Picture it: June 12, 1970, San Diego, California. Dock is awakened by a girl he has been partying with. She informs him that he has to rush to the ballpark to get ready for his start against the Padres. “But I’m pitching tomorrow,” he says. “No. Look at the paper. You’re pitching tonight.” Dock is befuddled. “What happened to yesterday?”
Dock Ellis was on a multi-day LSD bender. But he pulled himself together and pitched a complete game no hitter while tripping on acid.
How did he do it? Same way he did it on any number of occasions he pitched drunk, high, and hung over; he did it with greenies.
Greenies (dexamyl) were amphetamine pills that ballplayers use to pop to stay sharp and focused during games. They were as much a part of major league baseball as home runs and spitting until MLB banned them in 2006.
Think about how hard it must be to stay alert during a slow-moving 3 1/2 hour game after taking a cross country red-eye flight the night before. Having some serious uppers in your system surely made the long, grueling season easier to manage.
It infuriates me when high and mighty sports fans disparage amazing hitters and dismiss them as cheaters because they juiced. If getting a little chemical advantage is cheating, then most people who played during the 20th Century – the Greenie Era – were cheaters. And the players today are heroes for getting through 162 games without amphetamines.
Dock Ellis’s story shows a clear distinction between the life of pro athletes in the 1970s versus today. Back then, ballplayers earned a lot less money. But they had a lot more freedom to be themselves off the field without the prying eyes of ESPN scandal mongers and the prying needles of MLB drug testers.
The Steroid Era gets a bad rap. But “No No” is a reminder that drugs were a part of pro baseball long before Jose Canseco put the first syringe in his butt.
And, in the end, it’s clear that chemicals don’t truly make a player great. The 2015 season is proof of that. 39 year old Alex Rodriguez had a splendid first half the year – without steroids, without HGH, and without any upper stronger than Red Bull.
A-Rod clearly never needed drugs. And drugs did not destroy baseball.

The Fight of the Century

Image result for mayweather with his money

The Fight of the Century
*1/2

It must be hard for young people to believe that boxing used to be one of the most popular sports in the United States during the 20th Century.
These days, nobody cares about boxing. It is a tiny fringe sport that is about as popular as roller derby and curling.
The Junior Welterweight title bout between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao wasn’t just The Fight of the Century; for many American guys – like me – it was the first fight we watched this century.
My best friend and I split the $99.95 cost to watch the event on Pay Per View. I got duped but I don’t hold a grudge. I sincerely tip my cap to the promoters for successfully hyping the fight and turning it into a must-see cultural event.
The $100 that we spent pales in comparison to the $10,000s that celebrities paid to watch it in person at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Perhaps the most interesting part of the show was the hour where they showed the dozens of sports figures and movie stars in attendance. The crowd included Denzel Washington, Mike Tyson, Mark Wahlberg, Michael Jordan, Clint Eastwood, and Tom Brady with a visibly drunk Rob Gronkowski.
The broadcast was all hype and zero substance. We learned a lot about the background of the two fighters but no details about why they are considered great boxers.
The three knuckleheads who were paid to give pre-fight analysis sounded like they know nothing about the sport. “What’s Floyd Mayweather doing to prepare for the fight right now?” “He’s ready. He’s strong.” Seriously, dude, that’s all you’ve got? You know I paid $50 for this, right?
The only people who sounded knowledgeable about boxing were NBA legends Reggie Miller and Charles Barkley, who were interviewed as they were taking their ringside seats. Miller calmly observed that 36 year old Pacquiao doesn’t have juice to beat Mayweather’s masterful defense.
Miller was right on. Mayweather dominated.
In the fourth round, Pacquiao stunned the champ with a counter punch to the face and then followed it up with furious combination. The pro-Pacquiao crowd went wild and so did I.
Apart from those hope-inspiring thirty seconds, Mayweather was in complete control. He has the brilliant ability to slowly back up against the ropes and then slither his way to safety just as his opponent starts to attack.
Mayweather is a bad, boring fighter. And he’s a truly great boxer.
And that’s why nobody likes boxing anymore. And why this was the first – and probably the last – boxing match I will watch this century.

Schooled: The Price of College Sports

Schooled: The Price of College Sports
****

There was a dark time in our history when a certain group of people were terribly oppressed. In exchange for years of sweat, they were given only food and a tiny room to call their own. They did backbreaking work for no pay while the old white guys who ordered them around got rich off their labor.
The time is now. I am talking about college athletes.
College basketball and football generate $billions for universities. And yet, somehow, colleges get away with paying the players nothing. It’s a system of exploitation that is unique in the United States, and the terrific documentary “Schooled: The Price of College Sports” exposes it.

But wait, can’t players make money from advertising and licensing?

No, they’re not allowed to do that, either.
A basketball player can play EA Sports’s NCAA14 March Madness video game that features his name and his likeness. But he’ll have to play it on his roommate’s PS4 because the player himself can’t afford to buy the game. He didn’t get paid a dime.
If a Boston University English student writes a best-selling novel in her spare time and makes $100,000, she is the toast of the school. If the Inside Linebacker for BU gets paid $300 to film a commercial for Worcester Subaru, he has broken NCAA rules and will be suspended.
For some reason, there is systematic effort to ensure that college ballplayers remain dead broke.

But, wait, aren’t the players getting an education for free?

No, they aren’t.
Most kids who enroll in college don’t leave with a solid education. And the odds are even slimmer for those with athletic scholarships.
Athletes have hours of practice each day and hours in the gym when practice is over. They spend several weeks traveling for away games and can’t attend class.
If the school cared whether the athletes were getting an education, they’d hire professors to tutor the students on road trips.
When college athletes do have time to study, they’d be wise to study play books, not academics. If a player doesn’t perform on the field, the school has the right take back the scholarship – even if he is getting straight As in the classroom.
Meanwhile, a great athlete need not worry about losing his scholarship due to bad academic performance. The school simply will not let that happen.
I learned that first hand when I was a history Teacher’s Assistant at the University of Delaware. A young man – who never went to class – earned an F on a test. When the professor saw the “F,” he calmly informed me that the guy is on the football team and must never get a D or below. Period.

“Schooled” is a convincing documentary. It convinced me that the NCAA and every major university in the United States have banded together to form a cartel; a cartel that exists to make boat loads of money while ensuring that their employees are broke, ignorant and powerless.
For the record, I’m not pointing the figure at anyone. I am just as much to blame for this system of exploitation as anyone else. I happily watched March Madness last weekend. And I gave that football player a C-.

Don’t Hate John Lackey, Hate Long-term Contracts

Don’t Hate John Lackey

Hate Long-term Contracts

 

Some baseball fans argue that free agency has ruined the sport.

Since the 1970s, players have been granted increasingly greater freedom to leave their team and sign with whoever is willing to offer the most money.

I absolutely understand why people (particularly Kansas City Royals fans) don’t like free agency. The most insidious problem with 21st Century Major League Baseball isn’t free agent contracts, though – it’s LONG-TERM contracts.

It used to be that a free agent would look for a team that could offer him the most money. Now he is looking for the most years.

Early in the 2000s, a handful of clever sports agents convinced a few myopic team owners to sign their clients to five, six, and even seven year contracts. Now, each off-season, the most coveted free agents demand outrageous long-term deals.

Two years for $50 million is no longer acceptable. Seven years, $142 million – THAT’s the prize. And, invariably, some desperate franchise will give in and mortgage its future to land the hottest free agent of the moment.

A long, lucrative contract is a big score for the agent who sets up the deal. The agent’s 10% cut allows him to build a nicer Jacuzzi for his guest house. But these contracts are bad for everyone else involved.

First, there is the simple fact that long-term job security saps a man’s motivation to work hard and achieve excellence.

I am a good employee; I have a strong work ethic and I take pride in my job. But it would still be foolish for my boss to offer me a steady salary and 100% job security for the next seven years. Frankly, I’d probably slack off a little bit. I’m only human.

The uglier unintended consequence of long-term contracts is that it turns heroes into villains.

Red Sox fans: you loathe John Lackey. You want him to get the heck out of Boston and take his 6.41ERA and his sour attitude and his clubhouse beer bashes with him.

And you know what? I’ll bet Lackey wants the same thing! I’m sure he’d rather get a fresh start in a new city where he doesn’t get booed every night. But his 5 year, $85 million contract ensures that Lackey isn’t going anywhere.

That ridiculous contract transformed John Lackey from a Los Angeles Angel into a New England devil. Long-term contracts turn ballplayers into bums faster than a positive steroid test.

Joe Mauer should be the most beloved athlete in his native Minnesota. Instead, Twins fans see him as the $184 million has-been who will be sucking the financial life out of the franchise until 2018.

I want to remember Alex Rodriguez fondly for leading my New York Yankees to victory in 2009. Instead, all I can think about is how disgusting it will be to watch old A-Rod get $20 million to limp around the bases at age 41.

I love Major League Baseball. I don’t think we need shorter games and I can live without instant replay. But I wish there was some way to get rid of these awful long-term contracts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

42

42

***

ESPN Sportscenter covers sports that I care about – baseball, basketball, football. It covers sports that I don’t care about – golf, tennis, NASCAR. And It covers sports that no one cares about – Major League Soccer, Summer X-Games, WNBA.

One thing that ESPN is scared to cover is the topic of race in sports. And that’s a shame, because ignoring racism doesn’t make it disappear.

I suppose it’s understandable that the sports world wants to sweep the topic of racism under the rug. The great stain on the history of baseball – a thousand times worse than steroids – is that it used to be segregated.

I can’t think of anything more American than a young man wanting to play Major League baseball. And I can’t think of anything more un-American than trying to stop that man from living out his dream.

I am not saying that I don’t understand racism. But even if you have a problem with a certain group of people, I simply do not understand why you’d want to exclude them from playing professional sports.

I was hoping that “42” would help me to comprehend what motivated America to accept baseball apartheid for 75 years.

It didn’t. “42” is an entertaining feel-good movie. But it didn’t teach me a darn thing.

As everybody in the Western Hemisphere already knows, there once lived a great man named Jackie Robinson. And in 1947 he became the first black person to play for a major league team.

The film does a good job of showing how much pressure Robinson was under. He had to deal with intense media scrutiny and racist taunts from fans and opposing teams. He had to put up with pitchers who intentionally hit him with fastballs and he wasn’t allowed to stand up for himself or fight back.

Like a true Christian, Jackie Robinson turned the other cheek. He was such a good player and good person that it became indisputably clear that black people belong in Major League Baseball. Less than a lifetime later, no one even understands why there was segregation to begin with.

And that’s where “42” – and most movies about the Civil Rights Movement – fail. They only show the point of view of the good guys and ignore the point of view of the people who defended Jim Crow.

According to “42” and other Hollywood movies, every single segregationist was an ignoramus and a redneck and a bad person.

That’s like saying that every single person in Germany from 1941-1945 was a bad person and infinitely more evil than you or me. We may want to believe that, but it isn’t true.

By dismissing bigoted people of the past as inhuman monsters, we fail to take responsibility for our own flaws and prejudices. And we fail to give a hero like Jackie Robinson enough credit for behaving with such dignity and grace that he changed people’s hearts.

And that’s why the player who wore the number 42 was a truly great man. And “42” isn’t a truly great movie.

The NFL is great, but it could be better

 

The NFL is Great, But it Could Be Better

I watch NFL football every week. It’s what Americans do. I love it.

But I don’t think it’s perfect. NFL games are too long, with too many unnecessary breaks in the action. I have come up with four ways to make games shorter and faster-moving.

Here they are:

Get Rid of Instant Replay.

Most challenges go the same way: The coach throws the red flag. Then we watch 3 minutes of commercials. Then we watch 2 minutes of replays of the disputed play in super slow motion from multiple angles. Then the referee says “the call on the field stands.” What a waste of time.

Don’t Cut to Commercial After Kick-off Returns.

I don’t remember whether it was always like this, but standard procedure these days is for there to be a commercial break after a score. Then one play – the kick off, which is usually a boring touchback. Then ANOTHER commercial break.

It is outrageously greedy of the NFL to make us sit through basically six straight minutes of commercials between plays. No wonder I instinctually grab my iPad after a touchdown and start playing Clash of Clans and Words With Friends.

There Can Be Fewer Injury Time-outs.

How many times have you seen this? A player is writhing in pain on the ground, the medical staff rushes onto the field to help him, CBS cuts to commercial, and then – two plays later – the injured guy is back in the game like nothing happened.

Sorry to be insensitive here, but it seems to me that the player wasn’t really all that hurt to begin with and almost certainly could have gotten off the field under his own power.

I am not saying that there shouldn’t be any injury time-outs. I am saying, however, that if the entire game has to stop for your injury, you shouldn’t be able to return to the game. Simple as that. If you make 15 million people suffer through a “Two Broke Girls” promo and another insipid Cialis ad, you forfeit your right to play again that day.

There Can Be Fewer Penalty Flags.

America is a country made by lawyers, for lawyers. It is no coincidence that our national sport is the most complicated and litigious sport on the planet. But the NFL has gone too far. It feels like there is a flag thrown on half the plays. All those penalties slow the game down.

I definitely understand the necessity for holding penalties and pass interference calls. But I’m pretty sure we could live without the penalties for Ineligible Receiver (why shouldn’t the right tackle be allowed to catch a pass?), Illegal Formation (who cares if the tight end isn’t lined up right on the line of scrimmage?), and Ineligible Member of the Kicking Team Downfield (what does that even mean?).

Above all, if the NFL stopped calling False Start penalties, the whole sport would change for the better. In twenty years, you’ll tell your grandson: “back in my day, if the center flinched a teensy little bit before the snap, the refs would throw a flag and stop the action for a minute.” Your grandson won’t even believe you because the rule is so nonsensical and unnecessary.

I think these are all reasonable ideas to change the NFL for the better. But I doubt any of them will be enacted.

Oh, well. I’ll keep watching, anyway. What choice do I have? It’s either watch football or move to the UK and learn to like soccer. Obviously that’s not going to happen.