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Posted on: April 18, 2010 3:39 am
Edited on: April 18, 2010 12:42 pm
 

Spring Finally Comes To Minnesota

For some, the first sign of spring is the sight of the first robin. To others, it is the emergence of the first tulips.

My signs are different. Spring is teased by pitchers and catchers reporting to Spring Training. As the snow melts, teams evaluate the emergence of rookies and the fading of aging stars. For me, the first day of spring is not March 21, but Opening Day.

Since 1982, the magic of spring in Minnesota has been dulled by the reality of the Metrodome. The water stained yellow roof, the plastic grass, the ugly cheap baggie, and the misaligned seats all conspired against it. While spring and, eventually, summer arrived in the rest of the country, we were subjected to a pale, less substantial imitation. We existed in a faux spring, without the resonance of the real thing.

It wasn't just spring and summer that were dulled by the presence of the Metrodome, but baseball itself. Even in the championship years of 1987 and 1991, the Twin Cities has never felt like a baseball town. Excitement at the event, surely. But I've never felt that it truly loved baseball. How could that love survive the dump that fans were subjected to every game? We were treated to a cheap plastic version of the sport. Consequently, I have never had much regard for the baseball that was played here. I've always felt like an outsider. A stranger in a strange land.

Since the construction began on Target Field, I've felt a growing excitement at the possibilities that it presented. I've also had a small germ of fear lurking in the back of my mind. What if all of my anticipation led to disappointment? What if it wasn't the ballpark that I hoped it could be? Was I expecting too much?

On Thursday, I attended the game against the Red Sox. As I strolled through the plaza, the years of Metrodome misery were lifted from me. Target Field is everything that the Metrodome was not.

Beautiful. From the sandstone facade to the pine trees in center field to the view of the Minneapolis skyline in right field, Target Field is visually stunning. We had a bright blue sky and a breeze swirling inside the ballpark.

Comfortable. From what I've been able to tell, there might not be a truly bad seat in the house. You can watch the game from the wide concession areas. The scoreboards are state of the art and packed with information.

Authentic. As I watched the wind push a fly ball just over the corner of the left field fence for a home run, everything changed. I had my first spring of the past nearly thirty years. After years of being an interloper, I finally felt at home.

But I'm still rooting for the Yankees.

Posted on: April 5, 2010 5:58 pm
Edited on: April 5, 2010 6:01 pm
 

Unresolved Issues?

Most sons send their moms flowers. Last Thursday, in a Spring Training game against the Yankees, the Twins' Denard Span gave his mom a different kind of gift.

Facing Phil Hughes in the first inning, Span lined a hard foul into the third base seats. It was a sight you see in almost every game. An unaware fan getting hit by a batted ball. Except this time, Span hit his own mother in the chest.

Fortunately, after treatment, Mrs. Wilson was revealed to be okay, if a little sore. Span was rattled, but recovered as the game went on.

As odd as this story is, it's not the weirdest such coincidence.

On May 14, 1939, Cleveland's Bob Feller was pitching against the White Sox in Comiskey Park. During the game, one of the Chicago hitters fouled a Feller pitch into the stands, hitting Feller's mother.

May 14 of that year was, of course, Mother's Day.
Posted on: March 13, 2009 6:03 am
Edited on: March 13, 2009 3:58 pm
 

The Love of the Game

 Nearly forty years ago (how on Earth did I get to be this old?), I attended my first baseball game.  Cardinals against the Reds.  It was the era of the cookie cutter stadium.  You could have blindfolded a fan at Busch Stadium in those days, magically transported them to Cincinnati or Philadelphia, and the view would have been pretty much the same.   

These were not great times for the Cardinals, the glory days of '67 and '68 were over.  The Cardinals hovered around .500 most of the time during my early years watching baseball.  I remember Fredbird doing a lot of crying after the games on TV. 

Nonetheless, I was lucky enough at my first game to watch Bob Gibson pitch.  We sat a couple of dozen rows up behind home plate and my father had me watch Gibson closely.  How fiercely he competed.  How he claimed the plate as his own and dared you to impinge on his territory.  I can't remember for sure who won or lost, but it was a wonderful day.

And so began my love affair with baseball.  My subsequent experiences were similar to that first game.  Baseball was always a two part event:  the game and the discussion.  We'd watch the All Star game and we would root for the American League.  My father, like so many of his generation was a Mickey Mantle fan.  While we watched the games, my father told me stories of the players he watched when he was growing up:  Mantle, Berra, Ford, and the feisty Billy Martin.  He would remain a Yankee fan until his frustration with George Steinbrenner drove him away in the late seventies and early eighties.  He drifted to rooting for the Cubs for a long while.  I'm sure he was drawn to rooting for the perennial underdog.  Ultimately, when he returned to Missouri to live, he settled his allegience to the Cardinals.

My grandfather was always a Cardinals fan.  However, he also came to be a bit of a Twins fan.  He had a cabin on a lake in northern Minnesota.  We spent long months of the summer sitting in a boat supposedly fishing.  For me, the time was never about fishing, but about talking and listening to baseball.  Later, we'd clean fish and talk, as well.  Politics, current events, social issues, and baseball.

I followed my dad into rooting for the Yankees.  It was the Bronx Zoo period that cemented my loyalties.  I loved the swagger and clutch dominance of Reggie Jackson, the all out effort and grit of Thurman Munson, the flashy glove of Graig Nettles, and the smooth and quiet leadership of Willie Randolph.  Most of all, I loved a skinny, little lefthander who seemed to strike out everyone he faced:  Ron Guidry.  

Somehow, I remained a fan of the Yankees through the dark and dreary eighties and the beginning of the nineties.  For myself, and many other Yankee fans, it was the daily brilliance of Donnie Baseball that carried us through those years.  Don Mattingly saved a generation of Yankee fans.  The dominance of the mid to late nineties seemed like the reward for our suffering.  (I realize that this suffering is relative.  I'll get no sympathy from Cubs and Indian fans.)

I've spent the last twenty five years watching budgetball in the worst baseball park in the league.  I've been in Minnesota for the arrival of Puckett, Hrbek, and Gaetti and their improbable championship (against the Cardinals, no less) and their subsequent championship against the Braves.  I understand why people root for them.  It's easy to root for the underdog, to push for the little guy.  I've just never been able to warm up to the franchise.  Much of it has to do with an owner who, I feel, never really invested in his team.  Over the past ten or so years, the Twins have had their payroll comped through revenue sharing and the televison contract.  They've always been happy to take the money and rarely go beyond it.       

All loyalties aside, though, it's the game and not the teams that I love.  I'll watch any game that I manage to come across.  The pace of the game.  The fact that fifty seven straight games with a hit might just be impossible to reach.  Reggie Jackson screwing himself into the ground while striking out.  Rickey Henderson destroying a pitcher's concentration.   Paul Molitor always seeming to advance further than he should have.  Nolan Ryan teaching Robin Ventura that it is always better just to take your base.  Cal Ripken showing up every day, rain or shine.  Tony Gwynn perpetually at first.  Chase Utley getting dirty while evoking a bygone era.  Tim Lincecum's positively nasty, filthy stuff.  No scandal has been able to take that away.

I love that I can sit down and recreate a game by reading the boxscore.  I love the angles, the mathematics, the statistics and numbers in the game.  I love sitting in the stands with my nephews and having some of those same conversations that I had at the beginning. 

  

 

Posted on: February 9, 2009 8:45 pm
 

Welcome to the Steroid Era

Today Alex Rodriguez admits to steroid use.  I doubt that very many baseball fans were surprised.  The sad truth is that his is going to be just the first name on another long list of players who have abused steroids.  The names are going to come from every corner of every organization.  Steroid use has long been known to be rampant throughout baseball.  We just were never offered proof. 

We loved baseball and wanted to believe the best.  Like a cuckholded spouse, we blinded ourselves to the clues scattered all about the game.  Deep down, we always knew what was going on, but were so invested in our illusion that we wouldn't allow ourselves to see the truth.  We saw shortstops built like linebackers and convinced ourselves that today's athlete took a much more serious attitude toward offseason training.  We saw a first baseman suffering through an injury plagued career rise to perform at Bunyanesque levels.  We convinced ourselves that it was a change in luck and environment.  We saw an elite five tool outfielder become a hitting machine that was nearly impossible to get out.  We attributed some of the success to maturation and hard work.   

Our innocence was shattered long before the Mitchell Report initially named names.  We knew that the report had just scratched the surface.  We had hoped that the sacrifice of a few reputations would cleanse the sins of all.  The truth of the matter is that we need change from all parties before baseball can begin to heal itself.  We all bear responsibility.  Owners blinded by the revenue made on record breaking streaks.  Players willing to risk anything to achieve the smallest advantage.  Fans revelling vicariously in the exploits of their heroes. 

We have a choice.  We can let the game mutate and devolve.  It can reach the level of football in which steroid use is winkingly considered a necessary evil of the times.  A game in which a player can be suspended at the beginning of a season for steroid use and still be selected as the defensive player of the year and an All Pro player.  We can let baseball lose the mystical weaving of history and mathematics which make the game eternal and poetic.  We can let the game die and give our summer over to soccer and NASCAR.

Or we can take the steps necessary to heal the game.  It won't be easy and it will hurt.  The taint of performance enhancing drugs permeates every corner.  There are few players to whom you could point without a doubt or the trace of suspicion.  It will cost us an entire generation of baseball.  A lost twenty year period in which numbers made no sense. 

There will be some unfairly lumped in with the guilty.  Those denied their rightful place in history.  It isn't fair, but it has happened before.  Shoeless Joe Jackson and Buck Weaver were banned with the rest of the Black Sox even though there was little credible evidence that they were involved with the others in throwing the World Series in 1919.  Yet from their ashes, Babe Ruth built a golden age of baseball. 

Another golden age could be before us again, if we have the courage to act.

    

Posted on: January 25, 2009 5:33 pm
 

Building a Fantasy Baseball Championship

There is no one way to win a championship in Fantasy Baseball.  The variables determining your success are too many:  injuries, league rules, league size, scoring system, competition...  However, there are some basic tenets which can guarantee you at least the ability to compete with your fellow managers.

1.  Be active daily.  If you belong to a league that sets rosters daily, this is obviously essential.  However, even if you are in a weekly league, too much happens on a daily basis for you  to miss.  Players come up from the minors, are sent down, injuries happen.  By checking in daily, you might stumble across a useful bit of news before many of your fellow owners.

2.  Select your team to take advantage of your league's scoring system.  A player's worth in the real world doesn't always translate exactly to each league.  Differences in scoring systems can radically change a player's value.  For example, if your league counts triples as a scoring category, Curtis Granderson's value increases dramatically.

3.  Winning is about matchups.  High quality players at shallow positions give you a tremendous advantage.  A shallow position is any position in which the dropoff in production after the first few players is significant.

4.  Don't be sentimental.  Falling in love with a player is a sure way to find yourself falling in the standings.  Know when to cut ties.  There are often signs when a player starts to lose it.  Don't be weighted down by a fading "name" player.  However, before cutting him loose, see number 5.

5.  Take advantage of reputations.  Before you drop a player that you think is on his way down, shop him around a little.  See if someone else thinks he is the solution to their problem.  One man's trash is another man's treasure.  Don't ask for the moon.  Remember, you are thinking of dropping him.  

6.  Don't panic.  It's a long season.  All it often takes is a few good weeks to crawl into the middle of the pack.  There are notorious first half and second half players.  Find out who they are.  A few judicious pickups can turn around a season.  Remember that almost every pitcher has a game or two in which the opposing team uses him for batting practice.  Some major league teams don't have their rosters settled until Mid June.  June is a prime month for picking up the next Ryan Braun or Tim Lincecum.  

7.  Be bold.  Take a chance on a youngster or two with a load of potential.  You are better off gambling on someone with tremendous upside than playing it safe with a journeyman player with a low ceiling.

8.  Don't evaluate pitchers by wins and losses.  I know that they are scoring categories in most leagues.  However, pitchers have limited control over the outcome of games.  Concentrate on the factors they do control:  Strikeouts, ERA, and WHIP.  

9.  Don't obsess over saves.  Even the best closer will have weeks in which he doesn't have a chance to get a save.  Additionally, there will always be several teams for whom the closer position is in flux.  Don't overpay for a closer.  There is always another one coming along.

10.  Have fun. It's all guesswork.  If we knew what was going to happen, none of us would be playing.    

Posted on: January 21, 2009 10:36 am
Edited on: January 21, 2009 8:40 pm
 

Save Me From "Good Clubhouse Guys"

I hate Nick Punto.  There.  I've said it.

I'm sure he's a great guy.  Good family man.  Dependable friend.  He's an above average defensive player with adequate speed.  He's an mediocre hitter.  All in all, a bottom of the order, utility type player that you can find on every roster in the major leagues.

And yet, I hate Nick Punto.

I've spent the last twenty five years stuck in this frozen land, watching an often overachieving team run as cheaply as possible by a miserly owner.  It is a team that plays the bulk of its games in a cheap plastic football stadium juryrigged to be a poor baseball park.  I understand rooting for the scrappy player on a small budget team.   I know the dynamics of the Minnesota Twins.  I understand that role players who are good in the clubhouse are valuable assets to a team.  I've seen teams ripped apart by "Bad Clubhouse Guys".

Still, I hate Nick Punto.

Day after day, I listen to Bert Blyleven and Dan Gladden extol all of his virtues on local radio and TV.  His hustle.  His defense.  How he is the player that makes the difference on this team.  Really?  The way they talk, people have to be wondering why he has never made the All Star Game.  Much in the way my father in law wonders why Kent Hrbek isn't in the Hall of Fame.

The hype here is obviously part of the reason Nick has climbed up my list of players I just don't care for.  He hasn't reached Manny Ramirez status, but he nags and bugs me enough to make the list.  Yet the hype isn't the reason, I hate him.

He slides headfirst into first base.  It's that simple.  I can hear Bert Blyleven in my head, "Look at him hustling! Doing everything he can to get on base!"   It sounds really good.  He's a scrappy hustler doing all he can to win.

Except that it's stupid.  There is no reason to ever slide into first base.  Certainly, there is no reason to slide headfirst.  It's a force out at first.  There's no tag.  You just have to beat the throw.  You run as fast as you can from homeplate, and you don't even have to stay on the base.  You are allowed by the rules to overrun the base and still be safe.  All you have to do is beat the throw.  The act of sliding actually slows you down.  The minute you leave your feet, your momentum begins to slow.  When you come into contact with the basepath, friction becomes a factor.  There is no universe in which sliding into first base improves your chances of reaching safely.  Worst of all, you risk injuring your wrists and your hands.  (Of course, if you are a journeyman slap hitter, maybe it isn't a risk).

It's false hustle.  It's a spectacular way of saying, "Look at me!  See how hard I'm trying?"   Until the practice stops, there can be no forgiveness.

I hate Nick Punto. 

 

 

Posted on: January 20, 2009 10:07 am
Edited on: January 20, 2009 10:11 am
 

Rickey Being Rickey; Manny Being Manny

Rickey Henderson was a foregone conclusion as a first ballot Hall of Famer.  The numbers are undeniable.  1406 SBs in 25 seasons.  That's averaging better than 56 each season.  He has 468 more stolen bases than Lou Brock, the second all time bag thief.  It's another record that is unlikely to be broken in our age.  He also scored 2295 times, an average of nearly 92 runs per season.  Henderson also managed 3055 hits. 

The numbers don't necessarily tell the whole story.  Henderson was a player that changed every game that he was in.  He was a threat to run at any time, in any situation.  Pitchers pitched differently.   They wanted to avoid putting him on base at almost all costs, yet walked him to lead off an inning a major league record 796 times.  That's more than most players have walked in a career.  Once on base, it seemed inevitable that he would end up on second or third, and eventually scoring. 

The knock on Henderson was that he was a selfish player;  that all he cared about was stealing bases.  It is a criticism he shares with other singular minded players such as Pete Rose and Wade Boggs.  In the end, I don't know that it matters.  Whether you are performing to achieve for yourself or to help your team win, the most important thing is that you produce.  We all would love to have all players be great locker room players.   In some cases, maybe it is better to have a great player with a selfish side than a mediocre player who only cares about how the team fares.  It's a good question,  what level of performance does a player have to reach to make his locker room presence moot?

I have heard many comparisons this week between Manny Ramirez and Rickey Henderson.  I suppose their sideshow personalities make it inevitable.  Rickey being Rickey.  Manny being Manny.  Henderson and a few players like him (Reggie Jackson?, Maybe, I'm not sure) have paved the way for today's coddled player.  Manny is the poster boy for the coddled player.  Rickey on steroids.   I think that the comparisons aren't quite accurate.

Henderson was a nonchalant outfielder:  the basket catches, making everything look a little harder than it had to be.  For all that, he was a fairly good defensive outfielder.  Manny, on the other hand, is a butcher in the outfield.  Imaginary cutoff men, misread balls, he is an adventure whenever the ball is hit to him.  He is continually rated by his peers as the worst fielder at his position in the major leagues.  Unlike Manny, I rarely saw a "Rickey being Rickey" moment hurting his team between the foul lines of a baseball diamond.  The examples for Manny are legion.  How many times have we seen Manny posing at home plate and turning a sure double or triple into an achingly long single?

A more apt comparison for Manny would be Terrell Owens or Chad Johnson in football.   A player that relishes and pursues an Outsize Personality that he has developed and cultured.  It is easy for us to mock and belittle these players.  Players who have become caricatures of an athlete.  Unfortunately, we as a culture bear the responsibility for these creations.  We coddle and worship them from the time they show a flash of skill.  They could have been reined in by a parent, a coach at any level, but the promise that they present keeps us from proferring the needed criticism.  Maybe the strange thing is that we still manage to produce players such as Chase Utley, as well.

It's a chilling thought.  If Rickey begat Manny, what will the next generation bring us?

 
 
 
 
The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com