Giving thanks for a few baseball things
As holidays go, Thanksgiving is my favorite by a country mile. It’s devoid of awkward gift-giving, and the lack of an overt religious connection serves to unite us rather than divide us, whatever our backgrounds. Plus it lands on a Thursday, shortening the work week and giving us an excuse to crack open a bottle and start our feasts among friends and loved ones in broad daylight. The holiday is more than an excuse to gorge, however. It’s a chance to count our blessings, and while that may sound clichéd, living in Brooklyn mere miles from some of the most severe damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy — people still without power, who have lost their homes and most of their worldly possessions — I mean it with absolute sincerity. I’m one of the lucky ones who made it through the storm without more than the most minor inconveniences, and while I’ve tried to do my part in support of those who did not, my thoughts remain with them during this time.
On a lighter note, while the things I’m thankful for extend far beyond baseball (shelter, a witty and wonderful girlfriend, craft beer, authentic tacos, Exile on Main Street, The Simpsons) here are nine — one for each inning, so to speak — baseball-themed ones for the holiday.
Labor peace: The National Hockey League players are locked out, and in danger of losing their second full season in the past decade. The National Basketball Association lost the first 16 games of its season to a lockout last year. The National Football League had a lockout in the summer of 2011, and locked its referees out earlier this year, with replacement refs doing an absolutely brutal job in their place. Meanwhile, Major League Baseball hasn’t had a work stoppage since the 1994-1995 strike, and since averting a strike via contentious negotiations in 2002, has never even come close to the precipice of another stoppage. The negotiations for the past two Collective Bargaining Agreements in 2006 and 2011 have been relatively amicable, devoid of the chest-thumping threats and misinformation routinely seen in other sports’ negotiations. Both the Players Association and the owners understand that the sport is awash in cash, and while we can quibble all day with the way that it is spent — the scheduling for this year’s playoffs was a mess, the new restrictions on draft and international spending will yield negative consequences down the road, and jeez, can’t we enact a law against the Miami Marlins? — we don’t have to lose a night’s sleep worrying whether or not the sport will enjoy uninterrupted play through the 2016 season. The show goes on.
MLB Advanced Media: MLB.tv allows fans to stream games from outside markets onto desktops, laptops and handheld devices, making it easily man’s greatest invention since penicillin, if not sliced bread. The only thing stopping it from overtaking either of those — and someday, the wheel — are the blackout restrictions that prevent viewers from doing the same with regards to local games and those opposite national broadcasts. Still, a fan in New York can tune into a game in California, and on most nights have a choice of listening to the home or visiting team’s TV or radio announcers. Kershaw versus Lincecum? Pick your poison: Vin Scully vs. Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper or Jon Miller — you can’t go wrong. Barring a chance to sit down and watch a whole game, the magic of MLBAM allows fans to view highlights and archived condensed games, or follow incredibly detailed real-time updates via MLB Gameday, updates that include three-dimensional representations of every pitch thrown, with data that can later be downloaded, parsed, sliced and diced to stake out new frontiers of analysis. Want to see that monster shot Giancarlo Stanton hit last week? Not only can you, but you can find out exactly where that hanging curveball ended up in the strike zone before it was pulverized.
Vin Scully: I grew up a third-generation Dodger fan, the grandson of a Brooklyn native and the son of a man who introduced me to the pleasures of listening to Scully as far back as 1979, when the family was piled into a station wagon on some California road trip. The venerable voice of the Dodgers has been on the job since 1950, long enough to accumulate a grand library of stories about Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax, Fernando Valenzuela, and just about any player who squared off against the Dodgers at some point. Scully turns 85 next week, and while age has reduced his travel schedule, he still works well over 100 games a year, alone in the booth. After a long day of work, settling down to his mellifluous voice and inimitable syntax via a 10 pm broadcast of a game three time zones away remains one of life’s sublime pleasures.
Yankee Stadium seats under $30: When I moved to New York City in 1995, it marked my first time residing in a city with a major league team. Despite my background as a Dodger fan, I was drawn to Yankee Stadium much more so than Shea Stadium, and soon grew to appreciate the House That Ruth Built’s accessibility and spartan charms. After dabbling in the occasional game in my first few years here, in 1998, I banded a few friends together for a partial season ticket package. The final years of the old ballpark weren’t pretty, and our seats in the lower portion of the upper deck, just off center behind home plate — a great birds-eye view — grew expensive, roughly $60 dollars a pop. While I have my reservations about the supersized, Vegas-ized replacement of the park across the street, our seats — still in approximately the same location, though with the new luxury boxes, set back a bit further away from the action — are less than half as much. That’s allowed the “core four” of our ticket group to stick together and continue sharing games in each other’s company through marriages and divorces, fatherhood, job changes and health scares. The food may be mediocre and the beer costs an arm and a leg, but for me, a night out at the ballpark costs less than it did five years ago.
Baseball-Reference.com: With its cross-linked stats covering the entire 142-year history of major league baseball, and box scores dating back to 1918, B-Ref is the single greatest website ever. Schedules, standings, scores, leaders, awards, basic stats, sabermetrics — it’s all here, with enough to keep one occupied through eternity on a desert island. Even cooler: something I built is now part of it. As of a few days ago, my JAWS Hall of Fame metric is on nearly every player page, with positional leaderboards as well. Look for plenty of content from me along those lines soon.
Clubhouse Confidential: I’d be thankful for this show — a first-of-its-kind, sabermetrically-driven take on the day’s news — even if I didn’t get to be a recurring guest. For a half-hour a day throughout the offseason, host Brian Kenny cuts through the noise spouted by so much of the mainstream media to get at the true signal, inviting front office personnel and top analytical minds (as well as lesser ones like my own) for their input, often in head-to-head debate with MLB Network’s on-air personalities, many of whom are ex-players surprisingly more receptive to new-school thinking than your local newspaper curmudgeon. Kenny’s recent takes on the Trout-versus-Cabrera AL MVP debate were must-see TV, and while they aired too late to change the minds of this year’s voters, the show is helping to spread a smarter take on baseball to a whole new audience.
Bryce Harper and Mike Trout: This past season, we were blessed with not one but two of the greatest rookie seasons in baseball history via heavily-hyped players who took little time to begin delivering on their promise. The 19-year-old Harper put up the greatest teenage season in history, with more total bases, extra-base hits and Wins Above Replacement than any under-20 player ever had. The 20-year-old Trout not only put together a 30-homer, 49-steal campaign, he was a human highlight film on defense, and led the majors in Wins Above Replacement. The debate surrounding his MVP candidacy was often contentious and at times turned mind-numbingly idiotic in creating a nerds-versus-the-world argument. The good news is that we fans get to watch both of these players for the next couple of decades, and there’s simply no telling what heights they’ll scale.
Surprise contenders: Every spring, pundits, analysts, and regular Joes and Janes offer their takes on which teams will reach the playoffs and which will fall short. But now matter how much research, science and outright wishcasting goes into such prognostications, baseball retains its remarkable ability to show us something new, year in and year out. The 2012 season was especially rich for this, as the Nationals, Orioles and A’s all ended long playoff droughts, introducing new faces to the major league scene (not just Harper, but also Manny Machado and Yoenis Cespedes), returning long-lost ones (welcome back, Davey Johnson! And Lew Ford!), providing a bit of sunlight for some downtrodden fan bases, and challenging what we thought we knew about the way the game worked.
Twitter: I’ll admit it: I’m addicted to reading and sending those 140-character parcels, whether it’s to yak about baseball, beer, or whatever other b.s. is on my mind, from the silly to the serious. Somehow, I’ve managed to build an audience of over 10,000 followers in my three years since joining. Interacting with fellow travelers who enjoy my work is a blast, and debating ones who disagree is a worthy exercise that keeps me on my toes. With a big game on, being able to belly up to the greatest sports bar in the world to laugh, shriek and otherwise share the experience in real time with other fans is a treat I didn’t know I was missing when I routinely Tivo’d games to cut through the commercials. Twitter came into my life at a time it was about to undergo a massive upheaval, but the friends I’ve made through this route — many of whom have become part of my offline life — have been a godsend.
Since my personal cup runneth over, I offer this bonus entry as well:
MLB Hit and Run: It’s been just over six months since I hung out my shingle here, and while finding my fastball every weekday can sometimes be a challenge, the adrenaline that kicks in when breaking down a big story, and the satisfaction that comes with putting together a coherent argument, keep me going. Furthermore, the near-instant gratification of the process of creating a H&R reminds me of my humble roots back when I started FutilityInfielder.com, when I would piece together my daily rants over the morning’s cups of coffee. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to build my career to the point of getting paid to do this as my day job instead of sneaking it in on the side, and I’m proud to be affiliated with a label that’s featured some of the greatest sportswriters in history, thrilled that my work once in a while gets top billing among the current crop. Being able to use mlb.si.com as my calling card is simply about as cool as it gets, particularly after years of being asked “where can I find your work?” So I’m thankful for editor Ted Keith and the people above him bringing me aboard, and hopeful that this relationship can last a long, long time. I’m even more thankful for you, dear readers, for dropping by once or twice every day to check in on my latest take.
That’s enough jabbering from me; feel free to drop a few favorites in the comments section if you’re so inclined. Here’s hoping that you enjoy your Thanksgiving holiday among the special people in your life.