February 27, 2007

The Cubs Have Hitters; Can Soriano Pitch?

The Chicago Cubs entered Spring Training 2007 ranked number 1 all-time in dollars-spent in a baseball off-season. Totally unadjusted for inflation, the Cubs’ $297 million beat-out the $268 million spent by the Texas Rangers. The New York Mets wrote contracts for $196 million in and rank fourth. The Rangers finished 2001 with a record of 73 and 89 while the 2005 Mets finished in third-place in the NL East at 83 and 79. What does this mean for the 2007 Cubs?

The 2006 Cubs finished 15th and of 16 National League teams in runs-scored, last in the League in on-base-percentage, and first in the most number of losses with 96. Derrek Lee was injured and played only 50 games. Lee returns healthy in 2007 and the Cubs enhanced their lineup by resigning third-baseman Aramis Ramirez and adding Alfornso Soriano through free-agency. This is a revamped line-up that will score runs.

The problem is that hitting helps win pennants but it is hard to carry a team on the strength of the position players alone. The 2001 Rangers finished first in homeruns and third in batting-average. This was a line-up arguably stronger than the 2007 Cubs. Ivan Rodriguez was the catcher, Alex Rodriguez played short, Raphael Palmeiro was at first, Michael Young played second, and Ruben Sierra was the designated-hitter. That is a lot of all-star selections and MVP votes right there. Meanwhile, the pitching was entirely mediocre. The team ERA was 5.71, the highest in the American League. Rick Helling “led” the team with 12 wins.

The New York Yankees, Oakland Athletics, and Seattle Mariners had the three highest victory totals in the American League in 2001. The top six finishers in the 2001 AL Cy Young balloting were all on these three clubs. The Arizona Diamondbacks won the World Series in ’01 and their Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson finished one-two in the NL Cy Young award voting. Pitching won.

The 2007 Cubs are not the 2001 Rangers nor are they the Colorado Rockies of the late-1990s with Todd Helton, Vinny Castilla, Dante Bichette, and Larry Walker bombing homeruns on their way to 90 losses. The Cubs do have a staff-ace in Carlos Zambrano. Zambrano struck-out 210 batters in 2006, won 16 games, and had an ERA of 3.41 on his way to finishing fifth in the NL Cy Young balloting. He is a confirmed ace who should only increase his win totals this year with the stronger line-up.

The Cubs also have a decent number two pitcher in Ted Lilly who they signed from the Toronto Blue Jays. He went to the All-Star game in Houston in 2004 and won 15 games in 2006 while throwing 181 innings. His ERA was 4.31 which is not stellar and is acceptable in this day and age. Zambrano and Lilly are a solid one-two set-up.

The picture grows murky after this despite the insistence of Outfield Grass’ resident Cubs-consultant Ben Daverman. In addition to Lilly, the Cubs lured Jason Marquis north from St Louis. Marquis is another serviceable starter who logged 194 innings in ’06. He won 14 games for the Cardinals but his ERA was 5.02 which raised his career ERA to 4.55. In the second-half of the season, his ERA climbed to 6.72.

The number 4 and 5 pitchers, Mark Prior and Rich Hill also have question marks. Mark Prior is reported to be healthy and Larry Rotschild, the Cubs pitching coach, is carefully monitoring his workouts this spring in Mesa. Prior started nine games in 2006 and registered a 7.21 ERA.

Hill started 16 games, won six, and has an ERA of 4.17. He started the year 0 and 4 with a 9.31 earned-run average. He was sent down to AAA Iowa mid-season and went 7-1 with a 1.80 ERA in 15 starts. When he returned to the North Side, he went 6 and 3 with a 2.93 ERA for the Cubs the rest of the season. Daverman reminds me that Peter Gammons is a big fan of Hill. I am a big fan of Mr. Gammons and Prior and Hill remain unproven.

The Cubs have a good team. They will, will all likelihood, improve on their last-place 2006 finish. But it is hard to look past the Cubs rotation which has its strengths but simultaneously so many question-marks and what-ifs. Prior may regain his strength and can still be the devastating pitcher which he has shown himself to be in the past. Marquis may regain his poise and benefit from the change to Chicago. Hill may mature and improve on his 2006. And they may not.

Back east in Queens, the Mets are hoping to improve on their National League East 2006 Divisional win by advancing beyond the NLCS to the World Series. Yahoo! Sports player ranking has half of the line-up in the top fifty hitters in baseball. David Wright, Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, plus Carlos Delgado are a scary four for opposing pitchers. What scares Mets fans are graphics like the New York Times published in its Sunday sports section on February 18 where it showed the 11 pitchers who may constitute the starting rotation this season. This is not how championship ball clubs open spring training.

The Cubs are not the only team with a decent staff led by a star. The Giants have Barry Zito. The Dodgers have Jason Schmidt and Brad Penny. The Phillies have Brett Myers and Freddy Garcia. The Diamondbacks have Brandon Webb and Randy Johnson (who could rediscover his strength in the Phoenix-desert). What makes this Cubs team that much better than the other good teams in the National League?

February 13, 2007

Philadelphia Waits to Shine Its Light on the Phillies

Cleveland was an especially fantastic baseball city in which to live in the late 1990s. The Indians dominated the American League Central division. They won 100 games in 1995 and finished in first-place every year through 1999. They sold out every game at Jacobs Field from mid-1995 through April 4, 2001. It was a city for which sports and being a fan meant the Cleveland Indians. The Philadelphia Phillies now have the opportunity, under different circumstances, to capture the loyalty of its city. It is a wonderful feeling to stand at the center of a region’s devotion - the opportunity for which is rare.

The Indians in the late-1990s were one of best teams in baseball and they sat in a vacuum created by the absence of other Cleveland sports teams. Who else was competing for fan attention? There was no professional football between the 1995 departure of the Browns for Baltimore, and the team's 1999 rebirth. The Cavaliers missed the National Basketball Association playoffs in 1997 and suffered through losing seasons from 1998 through 2004. Hockey? The American Hockey League’s Lumberjacks did not draw at Gund Arena. Cleveland State, even with coach Rollie Massimino, was never a big player in NCAA basketball. The Indians owned Cleveland sports.

The Phillies will open their 2007 Spring Training on Thursday, February 15, when pitchers and catchers report to work in Clearwater, Florida. This is a good team with the potential to be a very good team. Ryan Howard is the reigning National League Most Valuable Player. Chase Utley is already one of the top second-baseman in the League. Jimmy Rollins may not be the best candidate to lead-off and he is a spark-plug on base and in the field. The Phillies have six legitimate starting pitchers. This is a good team and it is a good team with diminished local competition.

Local competition is critical. The Sacramento Kings have one of the most loyal and vocal fan bases in the NBA. They are a strong club with savvy owners who have capitalized on being the only game in town. Yes, there is the Sacramento River Cats AAA baseball team which plays in the Pacific Coast League. Their ballpark even seats 14,680 (a decent crowd for NBA games in some cities). But minor league franchises play at the behest of the parent organization. The players never quite belong to the team, and by extension, to the city. The Kings belong to Sacramento.

The National Football League’s Saints captured the embrace of New Orleans this season in large part due to their on-field success following their return to the city after Hurricane Katrina. It was a near-perfect season for a city crying for light. Even my sister-in-law, a disavowed sports fan and long time NOLA resident, was rooting for the Saints by season’s end – this is how much they pulled together the city. They did well and there was no other team. There is no major league baseball team or hockey team. New Orleans kind of has a NBA team although the Hornets started wearing “Oklahoma City” on their white home jerseys this year. So much for civic pride.

The Philadelphia Eagles have owned Philadelphia sports the past five years. The Eagles went to the NFC Championship game in 2002, 2003, and 2004, and surprised the city by reaching the second-round of the playoffs this year behind Jeff Garcia. But there is uncertainty now in Birdland. There are questions about whether quarterback Donovan McNabb and coach Andy Reid are capable of taking the organization through the playoffs and into a Super Bowl victory. Wins are no longer sufficient for this club and it enters the 2007 off-season with many question-marks.

The Philadelphia 76ers have the lowest attendance in the NBA this season. “Official” attendance numbers exceed the true number of fans in the seats; television cameras show swaths of empty red chairs. The organization is in transition between the Allen Iverson-era and a future which may be bright with a young core of players, but which is still a couple seasons away. In the mean time, the club is entirely mediocre and fans have tuned-out.

The Philadelphia Flyers? The Flyers have the fewest points in the National Hockey League, the fewest wins, and the most number of losses. The team has a loyal fan base and is ranked fifth in the League in attendance. But the team has not captured anything of the public’s imagination.

Even college basketball is a non-starter in Philadelphia this winter. The University of Pennsylvania has a shot at the NCAA tournament by virtue of their first-place standing in the Ivy League. And this is a good but not great Quakers team that has made a late run at first by knocking off Ivy League competition and is facing Princeton tonight. Villanova is good, ranking just out of the top-25, and Temple always has a shot with a strong performance in the Atlantic 10 tournament. But there is no NCAA powerhouse this year - certainly nothing like St. Joseph’s University was in when they almost went undefeated.

Baseball teams compete not only with other baseball teams but they compete with the other local teams for fans and media attention. On Friday morning, the local television stations and newspapers will report on the opening of the Phillies training camp. Will they devote an entire newspaper page to the story and push-out the Sixers and Flyers? Come May, will a local fan choose to go to a Phillies game at Citizens Bank Park and purchase a red Phillies baseball cap rather than head across the street to the Wachovia Center and watch the Sixers or Flyers lose? Will the newspaper print commemorative mini-posters of Sixers guard Kyle Korver or of Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels?

As the NBA rolls into Las Vegas for its All-Star weekend, there is talk of which league will be the first to plant a franchise in Clark County. There will soon be a franchise there be it NBA or NHL and they will have the first-movers advantage of capturing the affection of resident sports fans.

The Phillies will open Spring Training this week with a good team. This in itself is exciting. It is even more exciting that they have the chance to succeed and do so with the stage all to themselves. This is when it can be really fun to be a baseball fan.

February 06, 2007

To which Yankee Stadium will the 2008 All-Star Game Say Good-Bye?

Yankee Stadium has been awarded the 2008 Major League Baseball All-Star Game. Confirmation of the designation, a given around MLB the past few months, was made at a press conference at City Hall in Manhattan last Wednesday, January 31. The Yankees are building themselves a new ballpark which will open in 2009, just north of the existing stadium, between 161st and 164th Streets. The All-Star Game will be a centerpiece of the 2008 Farewell. But to which stadium are we saying good-bye?

Major League Baseball would evoke the memories of 1923 and the 84 seasons that will have passed since the Yankees moved across the river from the Polo Grounds to the Bronx. Jack Curry reported in the New York Times on February 1, Commissioner Bud Selig saying at the press-conference: “We really believe that this is the way we can honor the cathedral that has meant so much to this sport for so long.” The problem is that this storied “cathedral” was shuttered on September 30, 1973. The current Yankees’ park is a classic in having hosted the club since 1976, but it is a legacy of 1970s municipal architecture and resembles the Stadium in place only.

How did we arrive here in 2007 celebrating a story borne of the great marketing minds of baseball than the game’s historians? The St Louis Cardinals moved into their new playground last April and christened it “Busch Stadium”. It is their third home with this name. What we call “Old Busch Stadium”, the concrete circle in which the Cards played from 1966 through 2005 – the home of Whitey Horzog’s pennant winners and Mark McGwire’s fantasy summer of 1998 – was itself called “New Busch Stadium” when it opened in May 1966. The Cardinals had just moved out of “Old Busch Stadium”, which had been called “Busch Stadium” since 1954 when the name was changed from Sportsman’s Park. The Cardinals now play in Busch Stadium III. We forget that the Yankees now play in Yankee Stadium II.

Yankee Stadium I – the House that Ruth did build with his immense popularity – opened on April 18, 1923. The Yankees had won their first ever pennant in 1921 and they captured their first World Series championship that first year at the Stadium in 1923. It was a grand stadium that featured the famous copper façade around the roof, a deep outfield (that was 463 feet to centerfield as late as 1967), sat over 70,000 fans, and was home to the Yankees, the New York Giants football team, and championship boxing matches. It was a center of the American sports-world.

By the early Seventies, Yankee Stadium I had grown old and obsolete in a decaying neighborhood and housed a mediocre team. We think the current stadium is inhospitable today with crowded restrooms, narrow aisles, tiny concession stands, and minimal parking. New York City was falling apart in the late-1960s and early-1970s and so was the stadium. The Yankees had won their last championship in 1964 but by 1972, the team was below-average and Mickey Mantle, Elston Howard, Whitey Ford, Clete Boyer, and Roger Maris were long gone from the Bronx.

Yankee Stadium I needed repairs. The Yankees vacated the Stadium after the 1973 season. They took up residence in Queens where they subleted from the Mets. We forget that for two years, the Yankees’ home stadium was Shea. Not that we want to remember. The club was decent – winning 89 in 1974 and 83 in 1975 – but far from great. Most notably, George Steinbrenner was suspended from Baseball for two-years by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn after Steinbrenner was convicted in federal court for making illegal contributions to the re-election campaign of President Richard Nixon. This too is Yankees history!

Yankee Stadium II opened on April 15, 1976. The organization brought in the widows of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig to bear witness. They were joined by Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Don Larsen and eighty-five year old Bob Shawkey, who pitched for the 1923 Yankees at the then brand-new ballpark. The new structure was infused by the spirits of the old one.

Indeed, it was a new stadium. The ramps that curl around the stadium’s exteriors were added during the renovation. Lost were the copper façades, the view-obstructing pillars, the upper deck, and wooden seats. Gone was the limestone exterior that will be revived in 2009 in Yankee Stadium II. Luxury boxes were added. They had even dug up and removed the concrete bunker under second-base that housed the electrical equipment used for boxing matches. This was a 1970s-era stadium built on the earth of and sold on the name of the 1923 version.

There is much to be said for the sacrosanct nature of the field as distinct from the structure that rises above it and seats the fans. The Tigers left not only Tiger Stadium and the stadium’s 88 years when they moved to Comerica Park in 1999. The Tigers left the intersection of Michigan and Trumbull Avenues and 104 years of Detroit baseball played at the intersection since 1896, five years before the Tigers opened for business. The Polo Grounds, that we know as the home of the Willie Mays-New York Giants and infant New York Mets, was the fourth Giants’ ballpark to use this name and the third to rise at Coogan’s Hollow between 155th and 159th Streets in Manhattan.

Yankee Stadium may not be Yankee Stadium but Ron Guidry and Andy Petite pitched from the same geographical coordinates as White Ford and Waite Hoyt. Reggie Jackson’s and Tino Martinez’s homeruns traveled through the same airspace as Mantle’s, DiMaggio’s, Gehrig’s, and Ruth’s. Sure the grass is replanted and infield dirt refreshed and we still see Derek Jeter in 1996 covering the same spots as Tony Kubek in 1961.

There are many reasons to hold the 2008 All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees have not hosted the game since 1977 so we can say they are due. More so, Manhattan has yet to host what has become the MLB All-Star marketing festival in this age of the FanFest, Home Run Derby, and Future’s Game. We might even say what we all know which is that the Yankees are good for business! The NFL chooses warm weather locations for the Super Bowl for this reason (the occasional venture into places like Minneapolis and Detroit aside). Sponsors much rather party in Miami in January than in Boston! Marketing in itself is a compelling reason.

Baseball follows a thread of history, honoring tradition and the past as we play through the present. The Yankees have done very well for themselves in these past 31 years and there is much to celebrate at Yankee Stadium II. We need not make-believe that we are bidding farewell to a historic monument when we close this stadium in 2008. The House that Ruth built closed in 1973; that is o.k. We need not trot out, again, the Babe’s tired ghost. We need not recreate a non-existent history when we can celebrate the post-1976 revival of the franchise in the concrete 1970s monument that has staged 31 years of great Yankees history.