Some thoughts on the All-Star weekend

Here are some semi-organized thoughts on this past All-Star Game break, in rough order of events save for the preamble at the beginning:

  • First, the elephant in the room: it being in Denver instead of Atlanta. Outside of the occasional quick joke in some of my less-serious fare or things included for historical context, I generally avoid politics on this blog. I will do so here as well. However, from a pure event standpoint, it was unquestionably a good thing that this year’s All-Star Game and surrounding festivities were in Coors Field. The Coors Field factor and the flying baseballs that come with it helped make the Home Run Derby one of the best-ever, and also no-doubt helped contribute to one of the signature moments of this year’s All-Star Game: Vladimir Guerrero Jr.‘s 468-foot bomb that led Fernando Tatis Jr. to put his hands over his head in awe.
  • One neat change this year to the ASG festivities was having the draft in the ASG city beginning on Sunday night, mere hours after the Futures Game. While the Futures Game itself continues to be unfairly ignored due to being played even as regular season MLB games take place, I think having the draft on Sunday night instead of the traditional “final ESPN game of the first half that no team wants to be in because it makes their stars late to get to the All-Star Game city and takes away precious hours from their other players’ mid-year break” is a good move that in most years (not this year because of how screwed up the sports schedule continues to be due to COVID) will allow it to get much more attention than it traditionally has. Having the first round be on ESPN as well as MLB Network also puts it more on par with some of the other leagues like the NFL, allowing fans two different broadcasts and sets of analysts to choose from for more perspectives.
  • I’m still surprised Kumar Rocker fell all the way to the Mets, though.
  • As I said earlier, the Home Run Derby was one of the best-ever. While the ever-changing format (now you don’t have to wait for the ball to hit the ground for another pitch to happen) clearly causes some problems as far as the TV broadcast since they can’t really let how far some of these balls are sink in (perhaps they can add a 10-second break if someone goes over 480 feet?), it was a fun night all around. We had Juan Soto‘s upset of Shohei Ohtani (which no doubt annoyed ESPN’s producers but was still great television), we had Trey Mancini making it to the finals less than a year since finishing chemotherapy, we had baseballs going over 500 feet, and we had Pete Alonso. Nobody seems to love anything as much as Pete Alonso loves the Home Run Derby. My only big disappointment was that Joey Gallo apparently decided to have the worst possible time to have the worst BP of his life.
  • Speaking of Alonso, it’ll be interesting to see how his role in the Home Run Derby is going forward. He obviously is now going to get invited basically every year, and he seems to genuinely love the event in a way that even people like Ken Griffey Jr. or David Ortiz didn’t. If I rewrote Monday’s post he would almost certainly be on it. However, there is also the fact that his cockiness and supreme confidence rubs some people the wrong way, which may lead him to become the villain of the Derby. This isn’t a bad thing, per se: it’d allow MLB to build up a storyline around it (“Can anyone stop Pete Alonso?) and could possibly draw in some players to challenge the champ who otherwise might want to skip it.
  • Moving on to the game itself: It was a classy tribute to Henry Aaron to begin, which followed the classy tribute of having everyone wear 44 during the Home Run Derby.
  • It was bad enough that they were wearing league uniforms instead of their team uniforms during the All-Star Game, but the fact that the uniforms looked like some sort of space-age slow-pitch softball pajamas made it even worse. Next year, get back to the uniforms of the players’ teams.
  • While it wasn’t what many people hoped (no strikeouts, 0-2 at the plate), it’s hard to call Shohei Ohtani’s performance in the game a failure, especially considering how exhausted he looked after the Home Run Derby just one day before. Besides, getting Tatis Jr., Max Muncy and (homecoming favorite) Nolan Arenado out 1-2-3 is impressive by itself.
  • It was ultimately Vlad Jr.’s show. Whether it was hitting that bomb of a home run, driving in an RBI on a ground-out or hugging Max Scherzer after nearly beheading him with a line-drive, “Vladito” was the center of attention while he was the in the game and was a highly-deserving MVP.
  • Two moments from the All-Star Game that people are going to forget but shouldn’t: Freddy Peralta‘s striking out of the side (I mean it wasn’t Pedro Martinez or Carl Hubbell, but it was still really impressive), and Jared Walsh‘s nice catch in left to end the last attempt at a rally by the NL. Walsh is primarily a 1B and when he does play outfield it is usually RF, this was the first time he was in left.
  • Cedric Mullins should have gotten a hit on that ball up the middle and the official scorer of the game should feel bad.
  • Liam Hendriks being mic’d up went as gloriously wrong as we all would have expected.
  • As MLB itself said: It was a global game. The winning pitcher was Japanese, the save was by an Australian, the MVP was born in Canada and raised in the Dominican, other home runs were hit by people from Florida and Oklahoma, and the best “caught on microphone” moment besides Hendriks’ swearing came when a Canadian-American (Freddie Freeman) complained about looking small next to Aaron Judge.
  • Seriously though…. change the uniforms back.

The All-Time Home Run Derby

Imagine you have command of all time and space. And imagine you have been assigned to create the greatest Home Run Derby of all time… where do you hold it and who do you have in it?

I have ideas. Go below the jump to see them.

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Major League Baseball in Buffalo a strange but fun experience

Last Sunday, I did something I never thought I’d do. Certainly never anytime soon.

I went to a Major League Baseball game in Buffalo, N.Y.

Head below the jump for thoughts from a day in Buffalo.

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2020/2021 Tokyo Olympics Baseball Preview: Opening Ceremony

We are just weeks away from baseball’s return to the Olympic Games, at the COVID-delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics (now 2021, but they already had printed the t-shirts). Baseball, of course, was kicked out of the Olympic program after the 2008 games, partly because MLB won’t let its stars play but also because the IOC is a European-dominated institution that probably doesn’t know a fastball from a change-up.

However, now it has returned thanks to changes in how Olympic sports can be chosen, where hosts can decide to add sports that are popular in their country. So, of course, baseball (and softball) have returned to the Olympics for 2020/21. They will be gone again in 2024 in Paris, but then are likely to return in Los Angeles in 2028. After that? Apparently Brisbane is the current front-runner for the 2032 games. Baseball isn’t exactly popular in Australia but it isn’t totally unknown either, so who knows?

Anyway, this year’s baseball tournament has a bit of an odd look to it since it has six teams, not the eight you’d usually expect. This apparently is the result of efforts by the IOC to limit the number of athletes taking part in the games as a cost-cutting move. The six teams that have qualified are (in order of the time they qualified):

  • Japan
  • Israel
  • Mexico
  • South Korea
  • The USA
  • Dominican Republic

They’ll be set up in two groups: Japan, Mexico, and the Dominican in one, and Israel, South Korea, and Team USA in the other. Each team will have two games in their group. There is then a double-elimination tournament until finally the medal games happen. The whole deal is pretty complicated so I just suggest you look at this PDF to get an idea of how this modified double-elimination works. Basically the major incentive for winning the group is that you have a chance of jumping straight to the quarterfinals, while the reason you really want to avoid being in third in the bracket is that you’ll have to play against the other third-place team in an elimination game before entering the double-elimination. You can see more of the schedule here.

Most games will take place not in Tokyo proper, but rather in Yokohama at Yokohama Stadium, home of the Yokohama Bay Stars. It seats over 34,000 people, although due to COVID-19 restrictions as of now it is believed that it will only have about 10,000 for the games. In addition to Yokohama, one game (the opener between Japan and the Dominican) will take place at Fukushima Azuma Stadium in Fukushima. This is meant as a primarily symbolic gesture towards that region, which bore the worst of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami as well as the resulting nuclear crisis. While Azuma Stadium doesn’t have a permanent NPB team, it is still a large, world-class stadium holding around 30,000 fans during normal times (although, again, COVID restrictions will likely keep it to 10K).

Each of the coming team previews will be formatted in a way similar to some of my previous World Baseball Classic coverage. Here’s a bit of a key:

About the Country: Self-explanatory.

Baseball History: Self-explanatory.

Olympic History: A look at the country’s history at the Olympics, both in baseball and other sports.

Road to Tokyo: How the team qualified.

Notable Names: The Olympic baseball tournament doesn’t have Major Leaguers, but it still will have notable names, such as former big leaguers who have since gone to play overseas or found themselves in the minors or looking for a job. They’ll be showcased here.

Ones to Watch: The Olympics are also filled with prospects and overseas players that we may one day see in the big leagues. This is where they’ll feature.

Outlook: Self-explanatory.

So, stick around in the coming days as I begin the previews for this year’s Olympic Baseball tournament.

Neat Site: Digital Ballparks

Today’s neat site to check out is Digital Ballparks. It’s a site filled with slideshows of images of baseball stadiums past and present from around the country and even in some cases the world. It isn’t just limited to the pros, either: the Pastores (who run the site) also have plenty of amateur and semi-pro fields, as well as ballparks that once hosted professional baseball decades ago. In some cases where ballfields no longer have their traditional form (for example, abandoned fields or fields that may have been converted to another sport), they’ll even sometimes include Photoshop work to give an idea of what it may have looked like back in the day.

While it looks like they haven’t updated the site yet for the 2021 season, it remains a fascinating way to spend time for anyone interested in baseball stadiums.

Check it out.

Neat site to check out: “Threads of Our Game”

Some of you may be familiar with the Dressed to the Nines uniform database run by the Hall of Fame. On it, you can look up what each team wore uniform-wise from 1900 to today.

But what if you wanted to know what teams looked like before 1900? Enter Threads of Our Game, a website run by SABR member Craig Brown that focuses on the first few decades of baseball. To make up for the fact that photography of those days was not as common and essentially never in color, the site uses research of newspaper accounts, contemporary drawings, and other sources to get an idea of what the uniforms of the era looked like.

What’s more, the site doesn’t just have the Major Leagues. In fact, it doesn’t just stop at professional teams in general. They also have semi-pro and amateur teams of the era. No team, seemingly, is too small for inclusion. Nor is no team too vile: among the teams with a uniform on digital display is that of the 1874 baseball team run by the Klu Klux Klan chapter of Oneida, N.Y. Somewhat surprisingly, the uniforms does not contain any white.

Among the interesting highlights of the page are polka-dotted ballcaps, the first ballcap with a graphic on it (an Oriole wing), the year that some teams had a different-colored uniform for each position on the field, and also some of examples of 19th-century teams from the proto-Negro Leagues.

Check it out.

With Negro Leagues now officially major, it’s time for Rochester to honor its major leaguers

Late last year, Major League Baseball made it official: the Negro Leagues between 1920 and 1948 were and always have been major league level. Their exclusion from records before now had been the result of the very same racism that had forced their existence in the first place. The issue of incomplete statistics and other forms of record-keeping (for example, which games were official league games and which were one of the countless exhibitions that Negro League teams held) have been largely (although not completely) corrected through an extreme amount of research and fact-finding. MLB and most major baseball historians agree: there is no major reason to continue to exclude the Negro Leagues and the statistics of their players from the official history books of MLB.

For many baseball fans in the internet age, though, it can be argued that nothing is official until Baseball Reference says it is. Although not the official decision-maker of what baseball statistics are and are not valid, it might as well be, so when the folks there announced that the Negro League statistics would be integrated (for lack of a better word) with the site’s pre-existing statistics, it was a big deal.

Which brings me to my hometown of Rochester, N.Y. A good place to grow up depending on where you live in the area. Doesn’t deserve the reputation it has. For the purposes of this blog, what’s important though is that Rochester has one of the longest and most successful baseball histories in the country, outstripping even many major league cities. However, due to size and the proximity to other large cities it hadn’t had a Major League Baseball team since 1890’s American Association Broncos. The city had gone the entire 20th century without a MLB team.

Until now. Because, you see, in the waning days of the Negro Leagues, a member of the Negro National League played in Rochester. The New York Black Yankees were, of course, originally based in the New York City area. Founded in the early 30s and joining the NNL in 1936, they played in Paterson, N.J. or on Randalls Island when they weren’t barnstorming or playing away games. By 1948, with integration underway and finances taking a downward turn for many Negro League teams (especially in the New York City area), the Black Yankees headed upstate to Rochester, where they played the last year of their existence in Red Wing Stadium.

With MLB’s recent recognition of the Negro Leagues as major leagues, those 1948 New York Black Yankees are Rochester’s most recent Major League Baseball team. And it is time that Rochester also recognize them as such.

They were, admittedly, not very successful on the field, finishing 9-35 and coming in dead last in that year’s Negro National League standings. However, they still had some players who were considered good enough to represent the east in the Negro Leagues’ famed East-West All-Star Game. As the best players of Rochester’s last major league team, they deserve spots of honor at Frontier Field, perhaps on its Wall of Fame.

Those players are:

  • George Crowe, who hit .345 and led the team in HR and RBI. After integration, he would go on to spend time with three different franchises, playing over 700 games before finishing as a career .270 hitter. He was named to the 1958 All-Star Game when he was with the Cincinnati Reds. For a time, he held the MLB record for career pinch-hit home runs.
  • Robert Griffith was a two-way player. In his younger days, he’d often found himself in the top 10 of the pitching leaderboard for the NNL, but by 1948. he was 35-years-old and his best days were behind him. He was still the Black Yankees’ best pitcher, though, finishing with a 3-1 record and 4.33 ERA while throwing the team’s only shutout on the year. At the plate, he was less successful, although he still had a HR in his limited action.
  • Finally, there was Marvin Barker, an infielder who was also the team’s manager who occasionally would also fill in on the pitcher’s mound. Like Griffith, Barker’s best days were behind him, although he still hit a respectable .293 (third-best on the team) and had an OPS of .734 (second only to Crowe).

This coming Saturday, the Red Wings will hold their annual Negro Leagues tribute. They will be wearing the uniforms of the Rochester American Giants, a team that played in the minor leagues of the Negro Leagues. Perhaps, though, they should be playing in the uniforms of the 1948 Black Yankees. And perhaps, in years ahead, the best players of Rochester’s last Major League Baseball team can have a place of honor somewhere in the stadium.

Welcome to MLB’s freak-show season! Now buckle up.

Against all odds and perhaps much common sense, the Major League Baseball season starts tonight. There have been odd MLB seasons before, but this one will take the cake.

After all, while there have been times where it wasn’t clear in spring training where a team would be playing, never in modern times has a team been homeless on opening day, as the Toronto Blue Jays (the “RefuJays”) are now. Plans to play in Pittsburgh went bust. The next plan, in Baltimore, is still in flux and would have to pass inspection from local and state authorities.

If it doesn’t, it is likely that that the Blue Jays are playing in a AAA stadium Buffalo. Sahlen Field in Buffalo is likely the most MLB-ready minor league stadium, certainly on the East Coast. It was built as an effort to lure an expansion team in the late 80s and early 90s. However, that team never came, so the facilities have never been upgraded to modern MLB standards. Modifications would have to be made.

If that doesn’t work… who knows? Perhaps they’ll go to Dunedin in COVID-infested Florida. Or maybe, in an unthinkable situation, they’ll have to be a travel team, playing all games on the road. While there have been teams like the Road Warriors and Samurai Bears in independent leagues, there hasn’t been a true travel team in MLB since the 1899 Cleveland Spiders became a road team later in the season simply because they sucked so much and drew flies (which, of course, makes it hard for a spider to eat).

Even putting aside the Jays, though, this is still going to be a strange season. After all, it turns out that we still might see enlarged playoffs. Yes, we are just hours from starting and we don’t even know how the playoffs will work yet.

And then, well, there’s everything else.

So, in closing, the 2020 MLB season is about to finally beginning. It’s going to be freaky. Buckle up.

 

There’s no way this freak-show works, but might as well enjoy it

Baseball is back, with lots of special rules for the age of pandemic. A whole manual of them, in fact.

Alas, there’s no way it is going to work, if it even starts at all. Based on recent trends with the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in the Southern and Southwestern parts of the United States, it seems entirely likely that the already-delayed 2020 season will be delayed again or just outright cancelled.

Just look at the numbers and where things are headed. Trends in Houston are said to be pointing towards numbers that could be among the worst in the world. Twenty-six states, according to Johns Hopkins, have seen a rise in cases since last week, and 11 of those states have Major League Baseball teams. One open-source projection site that utilizes machine learning in making predictions estimates that by July 24 (which will be the opening day for most teams) over 1.9 million Americans could have active infections at that time. In places like Florida and Georgia, that site estimates that around 1% of the population could be actively infected by the coronavirus. While that doesn’t seem that big, keep in mind that even with the super stripped-down operations that MLB will have in place there will still presumably be more than 100 people in a ballpark at any given time, and so statistically with those rates of infection at least one of them could be expected to have the virus.

Oh, and it’s still not clear if the Blue Jays will even be allowed to play in Canada.

And, of course, even if they do play, it’s going to be, to put it mildly, a freak-show. There will be few if any fans. The (stupid) man-on-second-to-start-extras rule will be around. The NL will have a DH. Games will only be played in-division and in the cross-league equivalent. And, of course, there will be all the little things in place to keep human contact to a minimum, like not having players being allowed to bring other players their sunglasses or gloves at the end of an inning.

But, hey, it’ll be baseball. So if we do get it, enjoy it… because who the hell knows what’s going to happen once the CBA finishes up.

 

On this whole mess, and why it makes expansion inevitable

It has not been a good year for Major League Baseball. To be fair, it has not been a good year for human civilization in general, but even before the coronavirus crisis and the fallout from the George Floyd incident, baseball was having a rough year. Now it seems trivial, but earlier this year the biggest issue facing baseball was arguably that they’d let a team that was running the biggest sign-stealing operation in decades off with a relative slap on the wrist.

Remember that? Those were, amazingly, now the good old days. Now? Well, because of the usual toxic mix that comes with billionaires and millionaires fighting over money, there’s a chance that no season will take place, or will be replaced by some sort of 48-game glorified miniseason.

(An aside: Why is it that inevitably the players get blamed? The owners have way more money and usually are far more ruthless and cruel in these negotiations than the players.)

While we cannot guess whether a 48-game season would be considered a “better than nothing” hunger-crop meal enough to satisfy the public, a full-on cancellation would be the biggest blow to baseball’s intangible stature since at least the 1994 strike and possibly even the 1919 Black Sox scandal. Given that baseball’s current intangible stature in much of the country outside of the die-hard fans can best be described as “Present-day episodes of The Simpsons where plenty of people still watch and even more are glad they are on but not as many people tune in unless if something big or unusual happens,” that would be… bad.

Oh, and unlike those previous apocalypses (apocalypsii?), there is no Babe Ruth, Cal Ripken or 1998 HR race walking through that door to save the day.

Now, there is an argument still to be made that it is not as bleak as it looks. As labor lawyer and Baseball Prospectus contributor Eugene Freedman notes on his Twitter feed, labor negotiations are an entirely different beast from the negotiations (player contracts, trades, etc.) that sportswriters have to usually cover, and so the framing often is prone to hyperbolic statements and leaked comments that make it seem far more hopeless than it actually is. There is some truth to this: I can vaguely remember 2002, where it looked like a work-stoppage was all-but-guaranteed. Similar to now, there were comments about how poorly baseball would look by stopping play in a national crisis (in that case the early years of the War on Terror), and yet it seemed both sides seemed headed towards a cliff.  Yet, at the last minute, a deal was struck, peace was ensured, and the games went on. It is entirely possible such an occurrence will repeat in 2020.

Except, of course, there is another lingering issue: the current collective bargaining agreement expires after 2021, so even if everything comes out of this current crisis hunky-dory, we get to do this all over again at the end of next season.

So, what does this all mean? It means, oddly enough, that we’re going to see more Major League Baseball, because it makes expansion inevitable. It may be in a previous MLB city like Montreal, or a new one like Portland or Charlotte. It could even be in a new country entirely like Monterrey, Mexico. Regardless of where the new teams go or what form the divisions move to as a result of it, though, it will happen. Here’s why:

  1. Immediate money. Of course! History has shown in the past that one of the easiest ways for baseball owners to get some quick cash is to expand. It’s also one of the quickest way for the union to make money, as more teams means more roster spots and thus more union members. It’s not a new phenomena. The 1993 expansion that brought in the Marlins and Rockies was partly a way for the owners to raise money to pay collusion debt. Although the 1997 expansion wasn’t directly a result of trying to recoup money from the ’94 strike and the after-effects (the expansion committee had been formed before the ’94 season even began), it certainly didn’t hurt. Even most of the earlier expansions had roots that weren’t so much benevolence as business interest: the first expansions that brought in teams like the Angels, Senators (now Rangers), Mets and Colt .45s (now Astros) were done as a way to head-off threats to create a third major league.
  2. Minor Leagues. The other big pre-coronavirus crisis that baseball was facing was the plan to contract the minor leagues. The coronavirus essentially knocked out the political and financial leverage that MiLB had to effectively fight it, and it is now all-but-inevitable. Major League Baseball expansion, however, would also mean minor league expansion, which MLB could use as a public relations olive-branch to ensure that some of the places that lose their MiLB teams will only be without affiliated baseball for a few years.
  3. Increased attendance/revenue. More teams means more games which means more fans means more revenue. Duh. Given that MLB will definitely see a drop in attendance in the coming years both because of the uncertainty of when/if a coronavirus vaccine will be available as well as disgust from this whole mess, the increase that would come from expansion would be in the owners and players interest.
  4. Public relations in general. Oh, there was less baseball? Now there’s more baseball, and in more cities that MLB had previously.

Now, perhaps everything ends up alright. Even then, though, the fact is that MLB has lost a lot of revenue this year, and the owners will want to make it all up.

In other words: expansion is coming. Expect it.