Baseball At Center Stage

If you make a list of the major sports in the US, you won’t get much of an argument putting the NFL, MLB, the NBA, college football and college basketball on the list. You will get arguments about whether the NHL, NASCAR, MLS and the PGA Tour belong on the list. I think the second group does not. And so, that means that of the major sports in the US at the moment, only MLB is actually playing games. So, let me offer some baseball stuff first today.

I realize that it is only about halfway through the baseball season, but would it be fair to conclude that whatever it was that was wrong with the LA Dodgers last year, it wasn’t former manager, Grady Little. This year’s iteration of the Dodgers has pretty much the same core group of players as last year and they added a manager with World Series credentials. The team is doing worse than last year’s team did at this point. Look, I’m not trying to intimate that Grady Little belongs in the Hall of Fame as a manager; but the problem here is the talent on the field and it is usually the GM that assembles that talent and presents it to the manager – - at least that would seem to be the root of the problem to someone who is looking at the situation from 3000 miles away.

To be sure, the Dodgers are not out of the NL West division race because all the teams in that division are “seriously flawed” – - and that would be my description if I were being purely diplomatic. But if you are a Dodgers’ fan, would you want the GM who assembled this bunch of very highly paid players on the roster being the one who decides how many of the young prospects to deal off in order to get a grizzled veteran who can help in a divisional title run for this year? I wouldn’t.

The Dodgers are not “one player away from the World Series”. The Dodgers are a team with very ordinary pitching and below ordinary offensive prowess. They do not hit for power; they are last in the league in home runs and doubles. They do not create scoring situations for themselves; they are 14th in the National League in drawing walks. That would mean they need to string together bunches of singles to score and the team batting average is only .262 so that does not happen nearly often enough.

With Chipper Jones flirting with a .400 batting average this late in the season, I got to thinking about why it has been 67 years since anyone accomplished that feat. Yes, I know the snarky answer is that Ted Williams is no longer playing and that’s the reason. But in a more serious vein, it isn’t as if the pitching in MLB has gotten all that much better in the past six decades. In fact, expansion has diluted it badly. So why no .400 hitters?

Here’s a hypothesis. In the 1940s – and before – the huge majority of baseball games were played in daytime. I believe there were a couple of American League ballparks in 1941 that did not yet have lights so when Ted Williams played there it was always daylight. And young hitters learn to hit in the daylight. Therefore, perhaps the preponderance of night games now makes hitting slightly more difficult than it used to be? Like I said, it’s a hypothesis…

The Washington Nationals are averaging just fewer than 29,000 people per game in terms of announced attendance. Stipulating that this figure bears no resemblance to the actual number of hominids in the stadium who are there to watch the game, one might think this is an impressive stat for a team that is just plain miserable. But it is a mirage…

When the Nats came to DC, they averaged 33,600 per game in their first year and that was in RFK Stadium. Just to refresh your memory, RFK Stadium is Dante’s Seventh Ring of Hell with even more wretched food choices and cleanliness. Now the Nats play in a state-of-the-art stadium in a town that was “starved for baseball” and they are drawing almost 5000 fewer fans per game than they did. Given that this new stadium cost the DC taxpayers $612M, if the team plays to an average of 30,000 fans, that means the cost to provide each of those seats was $20,400 to the residents of DC. I’m glad I don’t live there…

I saw my first live baseball game in 1949; Robin Roberts was the winning pitcher that day. I recently read something about Roberts – who is now 81 years old – and went to look up his stats. Here is a part of his stat line you are not likely ever to see again until and unless the entire philosophy/strategy of major league baseball makes an orthogonal turn:

    Robin Roberts appeared in 676 games – 67 of which were relief appearances late in his career. In that career (from 1948 – 1966) he threw 4688 2/3 innings for an average of 7 innings per appearance. That’s impressive enough but…

    Robin Roberts threw 305 complete games.

Let me turn for a moment to the PGA Tour because I want to be on record as having thought of this way ahead of time lest it comes true. The TV ratings for PGA golf for the rest of this season are going to be minuscule at best; without Tiger Woods in contention, people will do other things than watch golf on TV on summer weekends. The PGA won’t acknowledge this publicly; the TV networks won’t either; the Golf Channel can’t say anything like this or it will lose the few viewers that it does have. But it is gonna happen.

Now, suppose – remember I said SUPPOSE – that Tiger Woods’ knee surgery/rehab is not fully successful. Don’t tell me it can’t happen; it just did. And suppose that Tiger Woods can no longer play tournament golf not because he can’t hit the ball but because his knee will not allow him to walk the course for four consecutive days. If that comes to pass, what are the odds that the PGA will allow him to ride a cart and use the Casey Martin decision – which the PGA lost in the Supreme Court – as the justification to change to ancient and sacrosanct rules of golf that they asserted were beyond the laws of the US? I say the PGA makes that change after a deliberation of 15 nanoseconds. And when they do, please make a note to go and look up the words “irony” and “hypocrisy” in the dictionary…

By the way, when Tiger Woods misses the British Open this year, it will break his streak of playing in 46 consecutive Majors. No, that streak is not even close to the record held by Jack Nicklaus of playing in 146 consecutive Majors.

Speaking of Woods and Nicklaus in Majors, we know that Woods is closing in on Nicklaus’ record of 18 major tournament wins. However, Nicklaus also finished second in 19 major tournaments; to date Woods has only finished second five times. He still has a way to go there…

Finally, here is a baseball observation from Greg Cote in the Miami Herald:

“There is a new movie about Japanese baseball called The Zen of Bobby V, starring former big-league manager Bobby Valentine. Analysts said it is final proof the film industry has officially run out of good ideas.”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports…

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