Saturday, November 26, 2011

What the hell is Major League Baseball thinking?

A number of things have come together in the recent postseason that are very good for the game and its fans – on the surface. Dig deeper and you’re going to be left scratching your head.

There’s a new collective agreement in place that will mean labor peace for some more years (as compared to the mess in the NBA). There will be a second wildcard position, quite possibly in 2012. The Astros are going to be moved to the AL and play in the Western division. On any day when all teams are playing, there will be an inter-league game.

Let’s disregard the collective agreement, because I don’t think any fans have a beef with that.

Way back in 1997, MLB decided to add one more team to each league (the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays). The problems this decision created were major in that each league would have an odd number of teams. There were two solutions: inter-league play extended over the entire season with one team from each league involved. The other thing that could happen was to move one team to another league.

Apparently, Bug Selig, who owned the Brewers at that point, felt that it would be a conflict of interest to have his team move to the NL. So the Kansas City Royals were asked first and declined. Since Milwaukee had been a NL city for 13 seasons (1953-65) when the Braves were in town, it was felt this was the best switch to make. It was also worth a lot of money to the team that moved. Gee, I wonder why this all happened this way?

So from 1998 until the end of this past season we had two unbalanced leagues with the AL West easily being the best place to be because you had only three other competitors to beat in your division instead of four – or five if you were unlucky enough to be in the NL Central.

My big question to all parties concerned is why this was allowed to happen in the first place? It created a patently unfair situation for all teams. The solution to the situation was obvious: either don’t award franchises to Arizona and Tampa, or wait until four franchises could have been awarded.

Now let’s look at the fallout of this latest decision.

It’s been decided to move the Houston Astros to the AL Central, thus putting both leagues back into balance – exactly the same place MLB was during the off-season of 1997 when the two new teams were added! Now I don’t know about you, but if I were a Houston fan, I’d be pretty pissed off about this.

We’re now going to have inter-league play spread more thinly over the entire season, the decision that was shot down in 1997. So why is it the correct decision now? Nothing has changed?

I have been against inter-league play from the beginning because the number of games between teams in each league had to drop. Not only that, but the schedule also changed to pit teams from each division against each other more often. In divisions like the AL east, this puts the “lesser” teams like Baltimore, Toronto and, until recently, Tampa Bay at a distinct disadvantage against the division’s two powerhouse teams, New York and Boston.

It’s going to be interesting to see how the inter-league schedule will affect inter-divisional play next season. Are we going to see even few games between our teams and teams from other divisions? That would hurt the game a great deal, in my opinion.

My basic feeling is that MLB made a big mistake creating only two new teams in 1997. It should have been four or none at all. With the continuing juggling they're only painting over the initial mistake that was made.

Time has born out that one of the decisions for a new franchise was a poor one. The Tampa franchise is floundering badly – not out on the field, certainly. They’ve been able to compete toe-to-toe with Boston and New York for several seasons now. It’s at the gate where they’re hurting. Even when they were in the World Series in 2008, I was shocked to see empty seats at Tropicana Field. As they came on so strongly at the end of 2011, thousands of seats went unfilled night after night. The team was forced to sell discounted tickets and waive parking fees in the middle of a postseason drive in an attempt to fill up their stadium. Not a very good sign.

Arizona has been more successful putting bums in seats, but there are several other teams around the league that have been floundering at the gate which means other options could have been looked at back in 1997.

But with Bug at the helm we got a very wrong decision from MLB’s hierarchy and I believe it’s harmed the game, most definitely in the fairness department.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

I thought this might be an interesting way to keep off my first off-season post. Hope you find this as interesting as I did.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

And now, the off-season

Hi there, Late Innings fans.

With the slowing down of the baseball year while every team tries to figure out just what the hell they’re going to need to do to get to the World Series a year from now, we’ve also decided to go into off-season mode here on Late Innings, too.

“What exactly does that mean?” you might well ask. Well, a few things.

First, you won’t be hearing from Will as often. His historical essays take a fair bit of time to research and write up and he has severe writer’s cramp as a result. He’s going to see Dr. Frank Jobe who has treated nearly all the great baseball sports journalists over the years who have come down with this career-threatening injury. Will may post during his convalescence, but not until he’s given clearance to write off a mound. He promises to be ready by spring training.

John will continue to post sporadically, as well – keeping up his record from the regular season. A man of many words, I know he has a lot of them left over that he’ll need to get rid of before spring training starts in the new year.

Me? You’ll have to put up with me since I’ll probably post most Saturdays.

But now our big announcement! We’d like to invite you, our faithful readers, to be guest off-season writers for us. Do you have any interesting baseball thoughts you’d like to share? A favorite team? Player? Something you want to gripe about? We’d love to offer you our soapbox. Please contact me directly at rick@rickblechta.com and I’ll tell you everything you need to know.

Friday, November 4, 2011

In Memory

With all the managerial changes due to firings, resignations and retirements this year, I thought we would remember one of the greats in the game.

He won back to back series with Big Red Machine in 1975 and 1976. He also won with the Tigers in 1984. It has been a year since Sparky Anderson died at age 76.

His style was flamboyant but convivial. “I got good players, stayed out of their way, let them win a lot and then just hung around for 26 years,” said Anderson during a 2000 speech on being inducted to the Hall of Fame. He had some of the greats in the game and he helped them become great. Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Jack Morris and Kurt Gibson to name just two from each team.

Sparky is the nickname of George Lee Anderson. He got the name from a broadcaster while playing for the Double-A Fort Worth Cats of the Texas League as a shortstop in 1955.

We have Maple Leafs General Manager, Jack Kent Cooke, to thank for Sparky’s involvement with managing baseball. Sparky played for the Triple A Toronto Maple Leafs baseball team. This was after his time in the show in a Dodger’s uniform. Even though Sparky was not a great ball player (fielder, no bat) Cooke noticed he could teach, lead and inspire those around him. In 1964 Cooke hired him to manage the Maple Leafs. (Same team Babe Ruth once played for).

Very quickly Sparky rose thru the managing ranks producing championship teams in each of his four minor league years. The Reds hired him for the 1970 season. They won 102 games in the regular season and then lost in the WS to the Orioles. It was this team that gained the moniker the “Big Red Machine”. It was a name that stuck until 1979. Sparky was hired by the Tigers in 1980 starting another run to the WS. He holds the franchise record for wins by any manager with the Tigers at 1,331.

Sparky is also the first manager to win World Series rings in both leagues. Of course, Dick Williams of the Padres, would have also been the first if they had beat the Tigers in 1984.

Sparky’s style was his “sunny disposition”. Except when it wasn’t. He could dust it up with the best of them, but not often. He treated his players with respect and taught them about the real game and about real life. He did start what is now a common practice. Get to the bullpen. If the starter is not doing well, don’t wait, get the relievers out there. He became know as “Captain Hook”. Tony LaRussa called him a mentor. I guess that is part of what we just saw in this year‘s WS with so many pitching changes for the Cardinals. (What was that? LaRussa brought in a reliever to pitch-out one batter.)

In 2000 Sparky was inducted to the Hall of Fame. His number 10 was retired by the Reds in 2005 and his number 11 retired by the Tigers in 2011. Each Tiger player, this past season, wore his number 11 on their uniform. Sparky is missed by the whole of baseball and its fans.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

One of the Best is Gone

With Tony La Russa’s retirement after 16 seasons with the Cardinals a golden age of managers is nearing an end. Only Tiger skipper Jim Leyland, a friend of La Russa, is left of a group of extremely successful modern-day managers. In the past year La Russa, Bobby Cox, and Joe Torre, who rank 3, 4, and 5 in all time in wins by a manager, have each retired gracefully.

For the record, Cornelius McGillicuddy (you may know him better as Connie Mack) had the most wins (3,731) in baseball history, but his record is tainted by the fact that he lost a lot more (3,948) – for a .486 record. John McGraw, who won just 35 more times than La Russa, had a winning percentage an even hundred points better than that. McGraw’s .586 trails only Joe McCarthy’s amazing .615, but keep in mind that in McCarthy’s first thirteen years with the Yankees they finished first or second in the AL twelve times.

LaRussa should easily make it into the Hall of Fame. So too should Bobby Cox, whose best-ever 16 playoff appearances is marred only by the fact that he won only one World Series, and Joe Torre, who went to the postseason 15 times, won six pennants, and four World Series.

As for Jim Leyland, who has 1,588 wins and sits in 18th place, he has only three more wins than losses, but he had the misfortune to continue managing the Pirates after they jettisoned their big salaries and he also led the '98 Marlins to an impressive .333 record.

La Russa managed teams to twelve first-place finishes and six pennants, going to the World Series in three straight years with the A’s from 1988 to ’90. He also lost in the Series with the Cardinals in 2004. He often appeared tight-lipped at his post game news conferences, but behind the scenes he showed a sense of humor, often poking fun at his .199 career big league average in a playing career that consisted of 176 at bats over 11 years as a utility infielder.

La Russa has changed the way baseball is played through his use of a number of unusual strategies. He started games with his pitcher batting eighth 432 times and continually used batter-pitcher matchups to determine which reliever to bring in – which unfortunately made major league games even longer and slower. He was one of the first managers to regularly use a reliever – Dennis Eckersley – for a single inning. Of course Herman Franks used Bruce Sutter as a specialized reliever in the late ’70s and the Yankees used Sparky Lyle that way too – and then Goose Gossage, but La Russa refined the practice, trying to ensure that Eckersley would start the ninth with a clear slate by trotting out a parade of righties and lefties to create matchups.

In 1991 La Russa set a major league record with 397 pitching changes, surpassing the record set by Reds manager Pete Rose four years earlier. Of course it was more remarkable in the AL where the existence of the Designated Hitter in and of itself reduces the need for pitching changes. By 1993, his last in Oakland, La Russa was up to 424 changes.

La Russa was getting a lot out of his hitters too. But not because of a shot in the arm from him – because of a self-injected shot in their butts – of steroids. La Russa claimed not to have known about their use, particularly by Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, but a guy as smart as he is must have. Funny thing ... Mark McGwire hit prodigious home runs and made prodigious use of steroids with another team in another league three years later. Now let me think, who managed that team – the ’96 Cards? Oh ya, that was La Russa again.

So Hall of Fame, yes. La Russa was one of the most intelligent, involved, innovative, competitive, and successful managers of all time and he deserves to be there. But his lengthening of games and his acceptance of steroids loses him quite a few points with me.