Friday, May 13, 2005

This and That

Without a Mets game for me to recap, I thought I'd toss out some random thoughts about all things baseball . . .

There's been a fair bit of chatter about the impressive start to the Orioles' year, and how they're going to make a real run, they'll be buyers when the trade deadline nears, etc. Blah blah blah. The Orioles' quick and definite slide to 3rd place has already commenced. They've been great, to be sure, and they've been a pleasant change of focus from the usual YankSox spotlight. The problem is that that division is that division, and to do what they've done so far, too many Orioles have had to overachieve. Brian Roberts is hitting .381 with 10 home runs and has people bringing up Brady Anderson's name for the first time in years (excepting conversations about steroids and closeted gay baseball players). Javy Lopez is successfully staving off the catcher cliff-dive that was predicted for him. (Must . . . resist . . . Piazza comment . . .) And the O's were getting more than they asked for from Luis Matos before he broke his finger. Miguel Tejada, mind you, is not overachieving, just playing like the big-time RBI machine that he is. The pitching staff has produced even more raised eyebrows, though, with Erik Bedard and Bruce Chen shocking even the most devoted Oriole fans, while Daniel Cabrera and Rodrigo Lopez have at least shown flashes of brilliance. (Sidney Ponson, meanwhile, earns more than twice as much as the other four starters combined and is in effect the 5th starter. At best.) Setting up is Jorge Julio, who's looked good thus far but anyone who's familiar with him knows better. If the Mets swap Mike Cameron for Julio (as rumored in the circles of the Township), I will have 3,000 nasty words of rant at the ready. You do not want this, people.

A couple of injuries to non-critical (Matos and yes, Sammy Sosa) have the O-wagon already wobbling. An injury to one of the top arms or bats could derail them. Even without such misfortune, guys are inevitably going to come back down to earth. At the same time, nobody outside of the increasingly decrepit Rafael Palmeiro has struggled, so there's little room for improvement from others to balance out the performance. There's no question this lineup will continue to produce runs on a regular basis if they stay healthy. The pitching staff, however, would have to carry on a stretch of defying the odds, and in this slugging-heavy division, I don't see it. Again, I've enjoyed this diversion for the first six weeks. Now back to your regularly scheduled programming.

In the same vein, the Red Sox and Yankees have already righted their respective ships, and now it's just a matter of digging themselves out of the holes they dug in April. (Ignore the people lauding the supposed collapse of the Yankees; I'd have loved to believe it even for a second, but I didn't.) Boston hovered around .500 in April, and a predictable hot stint has them knocking on Baltimore's door. The Bombers, however, made their own bed (wet it, really) with a stunningly inept first month, and have had to rip off five in a row just to get to three games under sea level. Multiple series against the washed-up A's and M's have helped both of these clubs get turned around, and they each get the next six games against . . . the A's and M's? (Interesting scheduling. Wouldn't want to space them apart to see what they can do against them at different junctures in the up-and-down season.) A week from now, it will be back to the same old saga in the AL East, which should neither surprise nor excite anyone from outside the northeast corridor.

The Washington Nationals have sustained a flurry of crippling injuries (seriously, check it out) and are probably one more ankle turn away from waving the white flag, hollering, "No mas!" and fading into the NL East cellar. They've overachieved more than the Orioles, much to the region's delight, even while playing the hardest schedule in baseball (statistically) thus far. But it just doesn't look promising for the team -- not that the fans will hold it against them. The Nats have a free pass for at least this whole season, maybe more.

Challenging the Nationals for last place are the ever-sinking Phillies. Currently seven games out and falling, things are going quite as I predicted this spring. I told my Phightin' friend Nick that the Phils were in a lot of trouble, but that the acquisition of Jon Lieber was quietly one of the best of the winter. Without him, the squad might find itself under the scrutiny of this site's Phillies Watch.

Speaking of which, down in the depths of the big league doldrums we have not one but two candidates for the successor to the Tigers/Expos Watch. It's time to start looking at the Kansas City Royals as a serious contender for some low lows. Tony Pena falling on the grenade can't help, that's for sure. The Rockies, meanwhile, fell on their faces out of the gate and haven't gained any ground since. An abbreviated, preliminary report on each:

Kansas City: 9-26
Telling stat: 3-12 at home

Colorado: 9-23
Telling stat: lowest run total in their division, even playing home games at Coors; the Padres, whose home field is a notorious pitcher's park, have scored 12 more runs

We'll see which team earns the right for this coveted out-of-region coverage.

Last week, after the Reds had blown a 9-3 lead in the ninth, Joe Morgan commented during a subsequent telecast that the Reds' loss had a little to do with bad performance and a lot to do with bad luck. He said the chances of not being able to manage three outs before seven runs crossed the plate were remote under any circumstances, and he mentioned the phrase "bad luck" about seven or eight times. The very next night after Morgan's spouting, the Reds couldn't hold a 5-1 lead in the final frame and lost, 6-5, in 13 innings. I'm thinking it was less to do with "luck" and more to do with "suck" than Mr. Morgan may have thought.

The Devil Rays are 12-12 at home and 1-11 at home, conjuring up (a crappier version of) the Twins of a decade or two ago. Hmmm, they've played 24 home games and 12 roadies, which says to me . . . bad news for D-Rays fans (both of them) in the near future.

The Marlins have allowed 91 runs in 31 games. Astounding. The Reds have given up 197 in 34. (Not sure how many in the 9th inning.) Opposing hitters have a .628 OPS against the Marlins, a whopping .883 against Cincy (which is 23 points higher than against the Rockies). The Mets get to face the Marlins 14 more times, the Reds three more times.

The Reds swept the Mets in the season-opening series. It was a punch in the gut at the time. Seeing what the Reds really are makes it more of a sock in the face now. If Cincinnati continues to free-fall, it will have the effect of a punt in the groin by season's end.

Getting away from mindless stats, I just want to mention once again the point I'm going to hammer into the ground before this season is over: the fans are too damn close to the baseball field. Most importantly, there's a better than decent chance that somebody is going to die at a baseball game in the next couple of years. Teams are building seats closer and closer to the field, and with every game I watch on TV or in person, I see young children in harm's way of a line drive foul ball. Kids can't defend themselves, and the parents are busy flagging down the beer man or talking on the cell to make sure their friends see them. Even non-kids -- just inattentive, clumsy, or ill-prepared folks -- are potential victims, but the least they could do would be to keep children under 18 out of those target seats. I know MLB sees the NHL netting as an example of the solution, but they're waiting out a death or serious injury like hockey did -- that way, nobody but nobody can claim it's a bad idea. Hell, I appreciate the aesthetic of the ballpark more than just about anyone; I'm waxing poetic from the moment I set foot inside the stadium. Yet I'm one of the few voices begging for a look at a set-up that seems destined for disaster. (The others being people who've already been struck, including a woman at the first Nationals game I attended who was hit in the forehead, and she wasn't even all that close to the field.) When Bud Selig gets that same old pained expression on his face once again (Exhibit A in the case against the parental warnings that your face will get stuck like that) and bemoans "a terrible tragedy that mars the history of this great sport" or some bogus tripe like that, I won't relish having seen it coming.

That danger aside, there's a far, far greater statistical chance of a significantly less horrible but nonetheless critical downside to the fans' proximity to the field. Again, I've railed on this before, even recently, but it just keeps happening: how is it that spectators are able to alter the game consequences by interfering with play? In other sports, it would be front-page news, arrest-worthy, and investigation-ensuing type of event, but in baseball, it's a weekly occurrence. I know baseball's a little different because you can keep a ball as a souvenir, but we don't see hockey fans reaching down over the glass to grab a loose puck, right? (I love writing about the NHL as if it exists.) Some claim it's "just a part of the game," but that doesn't mean it should be. Every time a fan grabs a ball in play, an umpire gets to make an odd judgment call, and the result may or may not reflect what might've happened without the interference. If it changes the outcome of the game in any way, the council of elders should figure a way around it. It would take time and money to raise fences, move fans back from the field of play, and create some kind of buffer between audience and performer, and again, it (very, very slightly) tarnishes that ethereal feeling that the ballpark imbues in us, but it's the right thing to do. As a perk, said buffer might keep the fans and players from mixing it up like they're doing at a rapidly increasing rate. But MLB, the think tank that it is, has seemingly operated under the premise that there's no such thing as bad press for quite a while. A dead spectator, yet another player/fan fight, and a controversial ending to a key game (Jeffrey Maier turns 21 this year; for kicks, I'd like to invite him out to any one of 100 Baltimore bars for the evening) are all clearly preventable scenarios that baseball doesn't seem all that desperate to avoid.

And finally, back into the lighter fare:

In 2003, 40-year old David Cone began the season in the Mets' starting rotation but wisely retired after a 1-3, 6.50 start. This year, 39-year-old Tom Glavine is 1-4 with a 6.87 ERA. I'm just saying.

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