Monthly archives: February 2008
Actual News Sort Of
My father called the other day, the day after my birthday, to share a piece of information. He had not called the day before. He did not mention the anniversary of my birth. With barely-contained malicious glee in his voice, he called specifically to inform me that the Rockies were planning on signing Neifi Perez.
I wasn't living in Colorado when Perez had his first go-round with the club; my memories of him like my dad's are largely tied up with his miserable stint with the Cubs. Neifi Perez isn't a bad human being or a completely worthless baseball player. He's a slick-fielding defender who can play a bunch of positions and (I hear) a good clubhouse guy. The problem with him is that for some reason managers get sucked into playing him too much like sailors drawn screaming into Charybdis. Perez can field, but the futility of his offense is towering and dreadful. While a Cub Dusty Baker became convinced that Perez's scrappiness was somehow offensively valuable and sacrificed hundreds of meaningful outs to the cause of proving himself wrong. Clint Hurdle seemed like a new man down the stretch last year, but he is susceptible to scrappy and doesn't have that many (much better) options at second base.
So we're all off the hook, except my dad, because Neifi! isn't going to be in a Rockies uniform this season after all. I'm willing to take this decision at more than face value, because the Rockies have a terrible record in the last few years when it comes to letting nostalgia persuade them to make stupid personnel decisions. They've wasted roster spots on fork-riddled last-chancing no-hopers like Steve Finley and Andres Galarraga and Marcus Giles with alarmingly frequency lately. The same willingness to stockpile cheap veteran pitchers that makes Dan O'Dowd so good at keeping a rotation operational on a budget comes back to hurt the team when it comes to players who used to be able to hit but can't anymore. Then again that doesn't apply to Perez, who could never hit.
The deciding factor in talks with Neifi cooling down might well have been the fact that the infielder is under suspension for being caught using amphetamines. Even were he to beat out Giles and Clint Barmes and Omar Quintanilla (a similar player, except younger, cheaper, and fleeter afield) and others in camp he would have to miss 18 games. The Rockies, who care more about maintaining an organization full of good-character players than most MLB teams, have had about all of the fun with performance-enhancing drugs they want to have. Very quietly last week the team released statements from reliever Matt Herges and coach Glenallen Hill that confirmed the Mitchell Report's allegations that they had used steroids and apologized profusely. Herges doesn't rate as a big enough star to come under further scrutiny, and Hill isn't even playing anymore (although it is terribly sad now to think of the homer he hit out of Wrigley Field in '00 that was still rising when it hit a rooftop seat across the street from the park). There are bigger names on bigger teams that were not as quick to offer honest admissions and sincere apologies. If MLB was going to be at all consistent about its policing, it would suspend Herges now, but I think it's entirely possible that no one at the central office even read the Hill/Herges press release. They seem to be taking more of a "cut off the head and the monster will die" approach to the steroid issue, going after the big names only, and that seems like a flawed analogy to me. Anyway, if they're not going to suspend Herges now, I certainly hope they don't change their minds and do so at midseason (as part of a massive Mitchell justice package?) when the Rockies are bound to need their veteran bullpen-innings absorber.
Where's the Baseball?
My birthday is next week -- Tuesday -- positioned right at the very dawn of the baseball season where it always falls. I love having a birthday in February. I'm from Illinois, where you know we like our Lincoln, and Lincoln's birthday is in February too. I like the whole Leap Year thing -- I was this close to being a Leap Day kid, I was born in '80. Everything about February says Mark T.R. Donohue to me, no more so than pitchers and catchers reporting. Yet somehow this year I'm less into it than usual. I haven't been watching WGN news on cable every night waiting to see the hysterical dispatches from Cubs camp. I've stopped visiting the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News sports pages, because they're terribly written and on the off-chance the Rockies even did anything worthwhile this offseason, none of our crappy local reporters was going to break the story.
I suppose part of this surprising disinterest springs from the fact that that's very little chance that the Rockies are going to improve on last season. I think they have a better team, but last year's National League regular season illustrated quite clearly that in a league with about 10 average-to-mediocre teams and 6 awful ones luck and scheduling will play the biggest part in deciding the postseason. Going into last season you could certainly argue that the Rockies deserved a break, but last September, they got one. Don't listen to anyone who tells you that the Rockies were a .500 team that got hot late last year -- they were about as good as their record. It seems to me that while the Dodgers and Diamondbacks have improved way more than Colorado, both of them were rather worse than the Rockies last season. San Diego, about whom fewer people are talking, was actually substantially better than Arizona or Los Angeles last year, and they should be around the same this season.
The NL West has four teams that should all win between 85 and 91 games. If San Diego ends up being the team with 91, then it proves it: pitching beats all. If Arizona wins 91, Josh Byrnes is a genius for trading for Danny Haren. If it's the Dodgers, Joe Torre will get the credit. If it's the Rockies, well, we should have known all along -- they were the NL champs and should have been the favorites all along. That will be the popular acclaim, anyway. But in all four cases, there probably isn't any one offseason acquisition that is genuinely enough to push them ahead of the other three. Barring a major midseason trade, the team that wins the NL West is going to do so mostly through good fortune.
Does that apply to the Rockies last year? Of course it does! I know they got lucky! I was there! They had like the eighth-best record in the league in mid-September when I half-jokingly sent in my playoff deposit, then I had to scramble around canceling checks and calling in favors when they suddenly starting not losing and put me on the hook for $700 worth of postseason tickets. After last year, I have a new appreciation for the universe's bizarre sense of order. Born into a colossal family of intense Boston Irish sports fans, I found myself watching the Red Sox celebrate a World Series title in person -- and choking back tears of disappointment. The world is weird.
Well, in addition to starting out with a new age on Tuesday (which if past experience is any guide it will only take me about four months to adjust to), on Monday I meet another new challenge: unemployment! Of course unlike being 28 this is an area in which I have plenty of experience. My record collection is going to suffer, but you the readers will benefit, because I'm going to have way too much time on my hands, and I'm going to try -- I'm not promising, but I'm going to try -- to do all the teams in my Hastily Assembled Previews this year.
I should probably just stop writing about the NBA right now, since apparently I don't know anything about it, but I can't help myself -- this is the best NBA season since the Bulls dynasty ended. So many good teams! So much on the line in the regular season! All the trades! The Trail Blazers and the Warriors are two of the most exciting teams in the league and both of them could end up missing the playoffs through no fault of their own. The Western Conference is that superpowered, making MLB's AL/NL split seem hardly an issue at all. (Although if the rising Brewers and hopeless Royals switch leagues, that wouldn't help perceptions any.) Personally, I think all of the player movement notwithstanding, San Antonio is the team to beat -- they've been resting their stars all year, and Manu Ginobili is making a case for MVP as a sixth man. I also have to castigate my hometown Nuggets for not making any moves -- as I suspected would happen, Allen Iverson has been a ghastly influence on Carmelo Anthony, and the iso-happy, 1-on-5 defense Nuggets are the ugliest winning team in the West by a wide margin. I kind of hope they miss the playoffs, because people around here are very unclear on how far away from being championship contenders Denver is.
The team I still pull for, the Bulls, made a classic postmodern NBA trade yesterday, with eleven guys going to three teams and everyone kind of ending up not that much better or worse than they were already. I'm glad Chicago was able to dispose of Ben Wallace, who was never a good fit, and I like the way that Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden diversify their rotation. Hughes and Gooden aren't better players than the ones the Bulls gave up (Joe Smith, their best player this season, went to Cleveland too) but they have skills that aren't well-represented on the Bulls' roster otherwise. Gooden at least gives you a guy you have to cover in the low post, and Hughes is a bigger guard who can play solid defense on the other team's star perimeter player. I understand the common sentiment in the Chicago papers today that Wallace was a goldbricking thief, but not the one that the acquisition of Hughes necessarily means the departure of Ben Gordon. The Bulls did not trade for Hughes because they really wanted to get better at off-guard. They traded for him because his massive cumbersome contract and Wallace's massive cumbersome contract balanced each other out and made the trade possible. Now they have Hughes so they'll play him, but he definitely wasn't sought out as Gordon's replacement. They're deeply different players, anyway -- Gordon is short, terrible on defense, better at spot-up shooting than scoring with the ball in his hands and Hughes is 6'5" and a good drive-and-dish guy who should shoot from outside as seldom as possible and plays very good man-on-man and help defense.
I think the Cavs have the same problem from this trade as the Suns do after dealing Shawn Marion -- who covers Kobe, or T-Mac, or Vince Carter, or Dwyane Wade on their team now? Shaq's big debut for the Suns the other night, while a hugely satisfying regular season game, ended up being more about the Suns' helplessness to defend Kobe Bryant than Shaq's contributions, although he did come on strong in the fourth quarter and was hustling for offensive boards and loose balls throughout.
The NBA is way too interesting to ignore right now, and as I wrongheaded as some of my ideas about it might be (when I savaged the Jason Kidd trade for the Nets I was unaware that Devin Harris is, like, the best guard at taking charges in the whole league, although I still think he's too short to play 2 and not a good enough passer to play the point, and it's silly to make a bench player the centerpiece of your deal sending away a superstar) I'm not going to stop writing about it. You can just not read what I write, if you like.
Things come in threes, including dynastic successions -- first we had Rocky Wirtz taking over for the departed, not lamented Bill Wirtz as the managing partner of the Chicago Blackhawks, then we had Hank Steinbrenner succeeding his father George as the loudmouthed public face of the Yankees, now it's Raul Castro in for Fidel in Cuba.
When the younger generation takes over, we're conditioned to expect reform -- policies more in tune with those of everyday rational human beings, not Croesus-rich oligarchs who sincerely miss the Nixon years. That's what the Cubans are crossing their fingers for, and what Blackhawks who fans remain (although they're judgement-impairingly desperate for any positive sign) are beginning to see from Wirtz the Younger.
I was sorry to see Hank Steinbrenner get raked over the coals on the ESPN chat shows this afternoon. What Steinbrenner said to invoke such disgust was something I've been harping on for years -- why isn't the NFL subject to the same public scrutiny with regard to performance-enhancing drugs? Well, why isn't it? The talking heads on "ATH" and "PTI" barely addressed the issue, which is the entire root of the problem -- just as they once were in baseball, the media covering the National Football League is in massive denial about the rampant HGH abuse taking place in the sport. Instead they just told Steinbrenner to shut up, invoking the ol' glass house-in-order argument. That's as may be -- the Yankees obviously have their very own homegrown PED problems -- but somebody had to say something. This thing with the 380-pound offensive linemen in the NFL is beginning to remind me of the climax to Zoolander, or "The Emperor's New Clothes," if you like. How can nobody else realize this? Why is nobody saying anything? Humans ought not to be that big! It's weird! It almost certainly is taking years off these players' lives!
So you go, Hank. For one day in February at least, you're the man in my book.
Is NBA Trade Insanity Reaching MLB-Like Levels Good for Either Sport?
Whether you mostly ignore the NBA completely, watch a couple games a year, or tape and view two or three games off of the Season Pass digital cable package every night like I do, it's hard not to notice that things have gotten kind of wacky lately. We're used to seeing major trades at midseason in baseball, where the lack of a salary cap and rules that allow teams to include large chunks of "financial considerations" in deals grease the wheels, but the NBA has far less of a history of major players changing teams in the middle of a year. What's more, since the league's complex and rigid payroll cap went into effect, most trades have been the sort where all involved parties are more excited about the players they've managed to get rid of than the pieces they are adding.
Why has this changed all at once? In the offseason Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen went from the Timberwolves and Sonics respectively to Boston, in both cases for rather threadbare packages of talent. An exciting first half to the regular season put teams on notice, particularly in the Western Conference, that not only would taking it easy for the last few weeks of the regular schedule mean missing the playoffs, but also that each and every round of the playoffs was going to be hotly contested and probably lengthy. With competition in the league at an all-time high, it's not surprising that a ton of teams wanted to go out and add some difference-making players for this year's stretch run. But what is weird is that there seem to be more than enough superstar players to go around for the teams that consider themselves in the hunt, and the also-rans who are selling off their assets are highly motivated to get deals done. Phoenix adding Shaquille O'Neal is the big story, but the least surprising trade; Shaq is old and rickety and comes with a sobering price tag. The guy the Suns dealt to get him, Shawn Marion, wanted to leave badly since he felt ill-served by a third-fiddle role. Deals like that, with yellow or red flags on players on both sides, happen in the NBA all the time.
The weird ones are the Lakers' deal for Pau Gasol, which cost them so little that other teams are making noise about an inquiry, and now Dallas's deal for Jason Kidd. Marion may leave Miami after his contract expires next year, but he's an All-Star player. In the trades giving up Gasol and Kidd, Memphis and New Jersey didn't get any such benefits. Devin Harris is a nice player but his status as an undersized two means (as Dallas discovered this season) he's never going to be a starter in the league. Jerry Stackhouse is a typical star-on-a-bad-team, sixth-man-on-a-good-team player who's past his prime. As for the Gasol trade... well, that was just brutal, with Memphis getting a marginal prospect in Jarvaris Crittenden and Kwame Brown, who has been a dead contract walking for about four seasons now. Add in Minnesota getting nothing more exciting than the slow-developing Al Jefferson in the Garnett trade and small-market NBA fans ought to be a lot more angry than they seem to be right now.
It's a weird thing. Basketball has the salary cap that some claim baseball needs, but in practice the two leagues don't operate any differently when it comes to acquiring and keeping talent. The NBA has its teams that are willing to operate over the salary cap (paying luxury tax dollars -- Dallas, the Lakers, the Celtics, and the Knicks all do), and those that aren't, and while the trade rules make the process a little less blatantly self-evident than it is over in MLB, dollars and talent still end up flowing to the big-city teams. As a matter of fact, the salary cap has only made the situation worse, because for small-market teams a cap is actually inflationary -- it's pretty hard to stay way under it unless you never re-sign any of your draft picks or sign any free agents, which is not exactly a plan for winning playoff games and selling tickets. So teams like Memphis and Minnesota can get wedged against the cap mostly by one player's contract and have no practical options whatsoever for improving without going into luxury tax territory. If you're the Knicks, you can keep dealing and going deeper into debt (and getting worse), continuing to spend a lot of money to be bad the way the Orioles do in the AL East. But if you're the Grizzlies or the T-Wolves, going into tax territory isn't an option. The other teams know this, and they have you over a barrel when it comes time to talk trade. Minnesota tried to get something worthwhile for Garnett for the better part of three seasons; when they finally realized offers weren't going to get any better, they blinked and got rid of him just to be able to say that they did so. (There's been a lot of this going on in the Twin Cities lately.)
My larger point is, I suppose, be careful what you wish for. While it's a travesty that there are some major league teams (I'm looking at Pittsburgh and Florida right here) that aren't even trying to field competitive rosters while cashing eight-figure revenue-sharing checks, it's also unjust that there are teams in the NBA who are forced to spend more money than they have to just to be dreadful. And these wealth-redistribution schemes seldom work out as planned. Not a bad thing to keep in mind during an election year.
Our Endless Numbered Days
I was doing OK there, I really was, but the twin blows of the Super Bowl (who saw that coming?) and the flurry of bizarre NBA trades (Shaq to the Suns? What is this, a video game?) I've been thrown for an analytical loop lately. Clearly I know nothing about anything. Up is black. Down is white. And so on. We need baseball to come back, so I can start talking like a blowhard again and feeling entirely justified in doing so.
The longer there are no actual games to watch the more the nagging inklings in the back of my mind about competitive imbalance and the very-much-still-raging use of performance-enhancing drugs start to become notions, and you know a notion is only a couple of contemplative Sundays away from a feeling, and a feeling so quickly can become an idea, which in turn grows into a belief... and the next thing you know you're one of those pasty sportswriters on "Around the Horn" who actually hates sports now but keeps plugging along because they're too old and set in their ways to find a new career path.
And that is what this all about, really. Crises in my life always seem to happen in the winter months when I'm least prepared to deal with them, lacking as I do then the daily therapy of games to watch. I've been working as an editor and freelance writer for a few years now. After briefly working as a paralegal after college I quit to concentrate on writing, secure in the belief that I was a much better and faster writer than anybody I had met in two years and change on Berkeley's campus newspaper, which I figured was a pretty meaningful sample. As it turns out finding writing work was indeed possible. Keeping it? Eh. Welcome to the world of new media, folks, where every job you can imagine is out there... but within two months the business model will collapse and the first people to go will be the creative types. I started getting paid to do a political column in November. At that point I had one editor. By January I had two guys who had to approve everything I wrote, then it was three, then they had no choice but to let me go because they didn't have enough money to pay all those editors and me. Personally, I felt pretty strongly like all the columns I wrote barely needed editing (CERTAINLY not for grammar and punctuation), but there you have it.
So the way I'm tying this to baseball is, in the game we love, the absolute bottom line is whether you're any good at it or not. The Rockies recently signed Scott Podsednik to a minor-league deal. Podsednik become a cult hero in Milwaukee before being traded to the White Sox and getting a hugely disproportionate share of the credit for their 2005 season. He's one of those dirtballs, a guy who plays with his jock on fire and uses extra eyeblack for all his teammates who go without. He can steal some bases, he can bunt for hits, he can wind up cartoonishly for his outfield throws like Eric Byrnes and still dribble the ball five feet in front of the cutoff man. Scott Podsednik is, sadly, not very talented. He will not make the Rockies better.
If you torture animals, or abuse drugs (I mean recreational street ones, not performance-enhancers -- for some weird reason cokeheads are OK in MLB but not juicers), or regularly sponsor trips for your entourage to the strip club where everybody including the strippers is carrying two or three illegally concealed weapons... that's OK. Can you hit? Can you pitch? How many tools do you have? If whatever your hangup is doesn't keep you from doing the things that win ballgames, you're probably going to get to play somewhere. You can get four, five, or more second chances in pro sports, because the talent pool lies on a bell curve and the outliers to the far right of the graph just aren't plentiful enough to go throwing dudes away for one little incident on the interstate.
But you can be the best deadline writer in the universe (or failing that, the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains) and you are completely subject to the whims of fate. I almost feel like I should go back to working retail and office jobs so I can go back to getting fired just for being surly and incompetent. I miss that... honestly, "You're not fitting in here" is way better than "We love you and everything you do, but we don't have enough money to pay you."
I am not expecting any outpouring of sympathy here. I merely think... well, the Toaster has a weird and varied group of guys of different ages and different backgrounds. Some of us are family men, some swingin' bachelors, with different jobs (or, er, no jobs, sniff), different regional and college allegiances (although a lot of us did go to Cal for some reason, not at the same time... well, if it's good enough for fake recruit Kevin Hart), and so on. But from time to time one or another of us will get off the pitching rotations and trade rumors and banjo-hitting centerfielder-bashing and touch on our scary real lives a bit, and it always comes back to baseball... baseball is more real, makes more sense, and is a greater motivation to persevere to see the next season. Well, for me anyway. And as lousy a year as I've had thus far -- 75% of my band broke up with their girlfriends in January (interestingly, I was less affected by my own 25% share than the fallout from the other two dudes), the brakes on my car went out, my dippy landlady suddenly decided to cash like six months' worth of rent checks all at once and completely wiped me out, et cetera, et cetera -- I can't help but look up and see that it's February, which means pitchers and catchers reporting, and depth charts, and spring previews, and trumped-up roster battles, and what's more since I got fired soon I won't have any troublesome work to keep me from focusing on what's really important.
I'll be OK. I'm probably going to go back to school to become a history teacher, which was sort of my long-term plan anyway... I just wanted to enjoy a couple more years of not having to wear pants for my job. And I'm absolutely not going to stop writing about the Rockies. Lucrative it ain't, but this is the most satisfying and successful writing gig I've ever had. Whatever else I'm going to have to do to keep myself and my cat under a warm roof, they can't take that away from me.
But baseball as always has provided an outlet for my rage: At some point this spring, maybe even in a regular season game, the Rockies are going to run out a lineup with Willy Taveras hitting first and Scotty Podsednik hitting second. The complete and absolute feeling of justified superior rage that that lineup card will instill in me will have made all of this worthwhile. These things I believe.
Not trying to win, but at least ticket prices won't rise (again)
About the Toaster
Baseball Toaster was unplugged on February 4, 2009.
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