A Special Outing

Thus far, all of my baseball writing at this site has been about play at the major league level. That’s not surprising. That’s the kind of baseball that has the most universal appeal.

But most of my baseball watching is not of MLB. In fact, it’s been 10 years since that was true. When I sit back to watch a ballgame, chances are my youngest son is in one of the dugouts.

Of my three children, the youngest is the only one who dove headlong into baseball (which is why, as I’ve informed the older two, he is my favorite). My oldest son Ian played a few seasons of little league a dozen or so years ago, but never with much zest for the game. Kiera, my daughter, gave softball a couple of spins when she was very young, but abandoned the sport when she rediscovered soccer in second grade.

But Cormac has been a baseball guy from the outset. He played his first season at Age 6, which also happened to be the year he started pitching. In addition to his other duties, he’s been a pitcher ever since.

That made last night pretty special. Cormac, now a sophomore at Michigan City Marquette in Northwest Indiana, was making his first start on the bump. It was coming a few days after recording his first save, though I missed that one due to my visit to South Florida (in fact, I was at the Marlins game referenced earlier in the week while he was wrapping up a 10-9 victory – defying the first two paragraphs).

Back to last night’s game. He was starting against South Central, a fellow small high school from the southern half of La Porte County. But they were no pushovers. The Satellites roster featured two Division 1 recruits, one of whom touched him for a wind-aided homer in a three-run first inning.

After that, he settled down quite nicely. He worked around his only two walks in the second (to those two D-1 bound players), then went 3-up, 3-down in both the third and fourth innings. I kept waiting for the coach to give him the hook, since he had never gone more than three innings in a high school game, but he kept getting guys out.

He allowed two more runs in the fifth (again, led by the studs, including the latter’s triple to center that neither needed nor got any aid from the elements), then opened the home half of the sixth by inducing back-to-back infield grounders, but both resulted in errors (in an otherwise solid  night from the defense). The coach finally pulled him after 82 pitches.

The final tally: 5+ innings, 4 ER, 2 walks and 3 Ks. And, his first varsity loss. But after the difficult first (where he helped mitigate the damage when he fielded a comebacker and caught the lead runner off third), he did a wonderful job keeping a good-hitting lineup off balance, changing speeds, moving the ball around the zone and even dropping his arm slot a few times to give the batters a different look. When he got ahead of guys, he continued to work, not giving them too much of the plate and forcing them to swing at pitchers’ pitches, defying a problem he’s had in the past. It was, without question, the smartest game he’s ever pitched. I couldn’t have been prouder of his effort. And his mom was even up for it, which made it even more meaningful.

Now, I’d be watching his games regardless the stats or circumstances. Quite honestly, there is nothing I find more enjoyable in life than watching the kids engage in the things they love.

But there were two other things that made this outing even more special for me. He caught an infield pop-up, and he averaged about one pitch every 12 seconds*. Take that MLB.

 

*I finally remembered to record his final frame on my phone. So I have the numbers to back me up.

 

TBtB: Miami Marlins

Before the Braves moved to the ’burbs, Marlins Park served as the go-to example of shady local political dealings to use public funds to build a new ballpark for the supremely rich. On a related note, Jeff Loria and David Samson were involved in the process.

Now the club is, at least figureheadively, run by Derek Jeter. Though his background is decidedly different from previous Miami chiefs, he kept alive the club tradition of Fish gutting this offseason. That means that among the ballpark’s fixtures, the players still aren’t.

The stadium itself is a little different, with its Lisa Frank-inspired sculpture in centerfield and fish tanks behind home plate. A source of mockery by some, I consider it a nice change of pace from the run of retro parks. The atmosphere, however, is decidedly less than inspiring.

The park has been called Marlins Park since its opening, though that may simply be a placeholder until a willing corporate sugar daddy comes along. That’s not terribly good planning, though I suppose that’s par for the course in South Florida.

 

Ballpark History

Built: 2012

Capacity: 36,742

Name: Marlins Park 2012-present.

Other ballparks used by club in its current city:  Just the one, from its expansion season in 1993 through its relocation in 2012. However, that park had seven different names during the Marlins’ stay there (Joe Robbie Stadium, 1993-95; Pro Player Park 1996; Pro Player Stadium, 1996-2005; Dolphins Stadium 2005-06; Dolphin Stadium 2006-09; Land Shark Stadium 2009-10; Sun Life Stadium 2010-2011).

Distinctive Features: Architecturally, a whole lot of celebrating of Miami. The Marlinator, the multicolored home run sculpture beyond the centerfield wall that may not survive the current ownership group; two aquariums inside the backstop wall; bar/nightclub with pool as a nod to South Beach; bobblehead museum.

Ballpark Highlights:

Muhammad Ali tossed out the first pitch before the park’s maiden game in 2012. The Fish lost to the defending World Series champion Cardinals 4-1.

Deep in the bowels of the stadium, Jeff Loria constructed a special “revenue stealing” box to place all his ill-gotten payments through Bolshevik Bud’s dirty scheme to cripple the game’s angelic New York franchise. (dammit YR, did you hack my account again?)

Wandy Rodriguez tossed six shutout innings to lead the Dominican Republic to a 2-0 victory over Puerto Rico to earn the top seed from Pool 2 in the 2012 World Baseball Classic.

Giancarlo Stanton hit two homers in a 7-1 victory over Atlanta, his 58th and 59th of the season in his MVP-winning campaign. He was quickly traded after the season to New York.

And now, for a TBtB first, photos. I was down in South Florida last week, and I ventured down to the park to take in the Mets-Fish game. Jarlin the Marlin threw six no-hit innings in a spot start for the hosts, but the Mets scored four in the eighth against the Miami bullpen to continue their hot start to 2018.

LEFTClockwise from left: DJ Vertigo spins the tunes; Wil Myers as a Ghostbuster in the Bobblehead Museum; the glorious home run scultpure in center; the many empty seats.

Look, there it is.

It finally happened. Well, I’m sure it’s happened before, but it’s the first tangible proof I have of one of the absolutely most ridiculous practices in baseball costing a team a ballgame.

In the 10th inning of last night’s Astros game against San Diego, Alex Bregman was at the plate with two outs and Derek Fisher at second base. Bregman skied a pop-up in the infield, a play that should have sent the game into the 11th inning still scoreless.

As soon as the ball was hit, Padres pitcher Phil Maton did what he’s been instructed to do since at least entering professional ball, and perhaps even earlier. He pointed up. Look, there’s the ball, he helpfully pointed out to infielders nowhere it.

First baseman Eric Hosmer, playing back given the game situation, charged in at full steam to try to make the play. But, not terribly surprising, he overran the ball and it dropped untouched a few feet behind him. As the ball was finding purchase on the Houston turf, Fisher was skittering across the plate with the winning run.

It’s all so damn ridiculous. There was one player perfectly positioned to make this play, who located the ball from the moment it left the bat, but MLB protocol prohibited him from doing so. Why, because Phil Maton’s a pitcher, and pitchers can’t catch pop-ups.

It’s an asinine tradition, and it finally cost a team a ballgame.

Look, I’m all for establishing an infield hierarchy that places the pitcher well down the list of pop-up handlers. If the first baseman or third baseman or even the middle infielders can make a routine play, they should call the pitcher off every time. It’s no different than the outfielders having the freedom to call off the infielders on pop-ups hit between them.

But on a play like this, where the ball is hit just a few feet in front of the plate, then the pitcher ought to be the one catching it. The corner infielders aren’t necessarily close enough, and the catcher should be the last resort, given his starting spot often makes the ball difficult to pick up off the bat, his uniform is bulkier which limits his mobility, and his mitt isn’t optimally designed for catching fly balls.

We expect the pitcher to field grounders; to cover first on grounders to the first sacker; to take their place in the run-down conga line; to make pickoff throws (Jon Lester excluded). Why we can’t expect them to also catch a simple pop-up when they’re the only one in position to do so is truly mindboggling.

Yes, this is the protocol. But there’s another, more apt protocol that covers virtually every other play on the diamond. If it’s hit to you, catch it.

Rick Camp Weeps

In the spring of 2012, my youngest son Cormac and I took advantage of a rare opportunity to see the NCAA baseball tournament in our own backyard. Purdue University, not a college baseball powerhouse, was given a No. 1 seed in the event, but the Boilers’ home field was not suitable to host the four-team regional. So they opted to play the regional in Gary, at the home of the Railcats.

We arrived sometime in the evening to watch the Boilers play against the nearby Valparaiso Crusaders, as did several other hundred Boilermaker fans from The Region. But that’s not what we saw.

When we got there, the day’s first game, a matchup between No. 2 seed Kentucky and third-seeded Kent State was just entering the 10th inning, the game knotted at 5. It stayed that way for seven more innings, until the Golden Flashes plated a run in the top of the 18th. UK responded in the bottom half, when a double drove in the tying run, though the potential game-winner was gunned down at the plate.

Two more scoreless frames passed until Alex Miklos hit an RBI-triple in the top of the 21st to win it for Kent, a victory the team would use as a springboard to an unexpected trip to Omaha for the College World Series.

The 5 p.m. start for Purdue-Valpo became a 10 p.m. contest. Cormac vowed to stick around for the entirety of the nightcap that we’d gone there to watch, but he ran out of gas after about five innings, and we weren’t around to see the Boilers close out the win one minute before 2 a.m.

Even though the preliminary game was between two teams that I had no rooting interest in, it was, without question, the greatest day of baseball viewing in my life. Twelve innings of bonus baseball, the potential for a game-changing play hanging on every pitch. What more could a baseball fan want?

Well, Rob Manfred could want something different. Baseball’s baseball-hating commissioner has delivered another new rule that tears a little bit more at the fabric of the sport, and make wonderful games like that a thing of the past. From now on, extra innings in affiliated minor league games will begin with a runner on second base, the better to goose scoring in a thoroughly artificial way.

The league’s nitwits in chief are claiming it’s being done to prevent injury at the minor league level, and to reduce costs as extra-inning games tend to drain the budgets of minor league operations (most concession stand sales dry up and beer sales are already over, but much of the staff is still on the clock). And, if they have to take a dump on 100-plus years of baseball to do it, well you can’t stand in the way of progress.

Long extra innings games are rare enough that this is not likely to move the needle on either injuries or costs. And, make no mistake, this very well could serve as a trial run before it’s introduced at the major league level. Manfred would no doubt consider it.

But it’s not baseball. And not baseball sucks.

 

 

 

TBtB: Detroit Tigers

 

Comerica Park is named after a bank. I guessed it was an insurance company. Not much difference, I suppose. Tiger Stadium was once called Briggs. That was named after a former owner of the club. Before that it was Navin Field, named after the protagonist in The Jerk (that may not be 100 percent accurate, but I don’t want to find out I’m wrong).

While it’s not the much-beloved stadium it replaced, Comerica is a nice little ballpark in the heart of the city. I went to a game there with the youngest Unacceptable boy a few years back. He didn’t ride the ferris wheel, but he did come home with an ugly Miggy T-shirt.

It originally played as a significant pitcher’s park, but the Tigers caved and pulled in the left field fence. That was a questionable move strategically and an unquestionably crappy one aesthetically.

 

Ballpark History

Built: 2000

Capacity: 41,299

Name: Comerica Park 2000-present.

Other ballparks used by club in its current city: Tiger Stadium (aka Briggs Stadium, Navin Field) 1912-1999; Burns Park (Sunday games only) 1901-02; Bennett Park 1901-11).

Distinctive Features: The throwback strip of dirt leading from home to the pitcher’s mound; tremendous skyline views beyond the outfield walls; centerfield fountain; grandstand ferris wheel and carousel, undoubtedly earning Sugar Bear’s eternal ire; lotsa Tigers.

Ballpark Highlights:

Brian Moehler earned a 5-2 victory in the first game at Comerica, which served as a bookend to his winning decision in the final game at Tigers Stadium six months earlier. That’s kind of cool.

In Game 161 of the 2003 season, the Minnesota Twins handed the Tigers a 9-8 defeat, the Tigers’ AL record 119th loss of the season.

In Game 2 of the 2006 World Series, the first played in Detroit in 22 years, Kenny Rogers tossed eight shutout innings in a 3-1 victory, running his 2006 postseason scoreless streak to 23 innings.

Justin Verlander became the first Tigers pitcher in 55 years to throw a no-hitter at home when he beat the visiting Milwaukee Brewers 4-0.

In 2009, hometown embarrassment Kid Rock was the headliner in a bill that included the previously dead Lynyrd Skynyrd and one-time Simpsons guests, Cypress Hill.

 

TBtB: St. Louis Cardinals

Now, it’s quite possible there is some obscure law in Missouri that says the home of the Cardinals must be named after the first family of bland American beer. But, screw it, let’s take some chances.

The National League’s most successful franchise has been playing in its current home for a little more than a decade, when new Busch replaced old Busch, which likely was the crème de la crème of the cookie-cutters, which is a complisult of the highest order.

Nothing much has changed with the relocation a few hundred feet south. The Cardinals still win a lot of games there, because that’s what the Cardinals always do. The club’s fans love the team, and themselves. But they pack the place every year.

It’s unquestionably a great baseball town, and a great baseball town with a rich history warrants a stellar name for the old ballyard.

Ballpark History

Built: 2006

Capacity: 45,529

Name: Busch Stadium 2006-present.

Other ballparks used by club in its current city: Busch Memorial Stadium 1966-2005, Sportsman’s Park 1920-1966 (named changed to, you guessed it, Busch Stadium, 1953-1966), Sportsman’s Park II 1893-1920 (park also known as League Park, 1899-1911, Robison Field 1911-197, Cardinal Field 1917-20, Sportsman’s Park (1882-1892).

Distinctive Features: A better view of the city’s most famous landmark than the old enclosed building once offered; outside Gate 3 is a duck-billed statue of Cardinals great Stan Musial, while odes to lesser St. Louis greats sit outside the team store; Gate 3 entrance designed to look like Eads Bridge over the Mississippi; so much red.

Ballpark Highlights:

In 2006, the year it opened, the home team returned to Busch with the World Series tied at one game apiece and rolled off three straight World Series victories to defeat the Detroit Tigers for the title.

In Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, the Cards rallied from a two-run deficit in the ninth, then another two-run deficit in the 10th, before David Freese’s homer in the 11th sent the Fall Classic to a Game 7. The Cards went on to win their 11th championship one night later.

In one of the more bizarre endings to a World Series game in history, future terrible Red Sox player Allen Craig scored the game-winning run on an obstruction call on former terrible Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks, allowing the home team to take a 2-1 series lead over Boston in the 2013 Fall Classic. P.S. – it was the right call.

In 2014, the Cardinals promoted Chris Correa to scouting director, choosing the internal option over Elliott Anderson, Julian Assange and several members of Anonymous.

 

Yearn for the Cup

Perhaps it’s simply a byproduct of baseball commissioner Rob Manfred’s approach, where each and every hairbrained idea for the game is given a public test drive, but there has been a significant number of “what to change about baseball” pieces being written lately. I advanced my own idea a few days ago, reducing the distance between the bases, to change the offensive approach so prevalent now. But even though I think that plan might be the only way to restore offensive balance, it’s not something I’d jump into until other less drastic measures were taken and proved inadequate.

Moreover, for the most part, there’s really nothing about the game that couldn’t simply be fixed by just putting serious, effective pace-quickening measures in place. That isn’t reducing commercial time or changing the intentional walk rule. It comes down to three things: throw the damn ball, stay in the damn box, and quit congregating on the damn mound. MLB announced half-assed steps to address the third, but without any concerted effort at the first two, the games will continue to creep along at the snail’s rate they’re at now.

Other than that, the on-field product mostly doesn’t need serious fixing. But there are other ways to deliver the game that could generate new interest from both the casual and hardcore fan alike.

My idea would be to borrow from the boys across the pond. During the various soccer seasons in the UK, Germany, Spain and Italy, the campaigns are also broken up by the occasional tournament. The Champions League. The Euros, the World Cup, etc., are often played midseason. These don’t detract from the Premier League or La Liga chases. It’s just bonus football.

Why can’t baseball do something similar? Why not introduce the North American Cup, a season-long tournament for professional baseball throughout organized ball here.

Here’s how I see it playing out: The High A season starts with two 15-team tournaments, with the two events broken down by parent-club affiliation. The games could be played over the course of a weekend at two sites (with the host clubs getting the bye each year). And if you can find a way to pull the Rookie League and low-A teams into the mix, more’s the better.

The champions of each Single A tournament then advance to the Double A tournament a month later, to be played under the same format (though now there will be no need for byes, as each field will have 16 teams). The winners, naturally, advance to play in the Triple A tournament in July.

Finally, over the course of five Mondays in late July, early August (when many MLB teams are just playing out the string), the tournament is resumed at the major league level. The league will schedule no regular season games on those Mondays (the schedule can be reduced to 154 games as part of the plan), allowing attention to be focused entirely on the Cup. Games can be played at home fields or a single site.

The NA Cup would provide more than a few benefits, besides just additional baseball with something on the line. First, it would give the many out-of-the-running teams a second chance at doing something meaningful during the season. And the inclusion of two minor league teams, who would on occasion knock off a big-league opponent to advance to the second round (since this is baseball), would deliver the Cinderellas that make the NCAA basketball tournament so exciting. And if you provide a nice financial incentive along the way, you’ll get some buy-in from the players.

We don’t need to gimmick up the game by putting a runner on second to start the 11th, or allow any three players to hit in the ninth, two cockamamie plans that have been tossed out recently. A single-elimination tournament is a dramatic change from the 162-game grind, but it would remain the same great game at its core.