Winter’s remedy, summer’s sport

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in The Collegian, Grove City College’s student newspaper, on Feb. 7, 2014.

Baseball is a beautiful sport. Many writers have waxed poetic on the subject, and worthily so.

Summer calls in the smell of leather; the cracking and popping of the ball in mitt and on bat; the batter marking his territory in the dirt.

As I write, a large cap of snow sits mockingly on every large patch of grass. The arm of the true baseball fanatic begs for the ache that comes after a half hour long toss. Their legs long to stretch out across a field, any field, to run after the ball in flight.

Major league pitchers and catchers report to spring training tomorrow — not a moment too soon, as the football season came to a dreadfully one-sided end Sunday night. (N.B. the editor’s note here.)

Yet it’s funny how long a third of a year can seem. The satisfying pop in a glove a month or two from now will be the assurance that the painful months of waiting are ending at long last.

From the first ball thrown in spring training to the last swing of the bat in the World Series, the baseball season lasts over eight months. To some it seems excessive, but it truly brings out the consistency necessary to succeed in 162 games (and, the hope is, in October baseball as well).

The teams that play the best get a shot at postseason ball, and that’s the way things should work.

Instead of playing division opponents twice as in football, a team plays each of its four division rivals 19 times over the course of the summer.

Baseball’s knack for generally sorting out the best teams does not in the slightest preclude the possibility of peculiar outcomes.

Though winning and losing streaks do not take up as much of the season schedule as other sports, they still contribute to positioning. Depending on the timing of a string of six wins, a team could drastically improve its chances of winning the division.

In baseball, anything can happen on a given day. A pitcher could allow no base runners, or he could concede 14 runs over three innings.

The most remarkable thing, though, is that every pitch has the potential to be incredibly important. The batter could hit a three-run home run or line into a triple play. One swing of the bat could mean the difference between an eight-game winning streak and just another loss in a disappointing season.

My hometown team isn’t likely to factor much into the postseason race this year, but I still want to catch every game I can. Why, you may ask?

Perhaps an unknown rookie will make his debut, kicking off an unexpectedly stellar career. An accomplished base-stealer could swipe home when the opposition gets lazy. Or a play could transpire stranger than anything the imagination can mold.

I was in attendance for Kevin Millwood’s no-hitter in 2003, the last season in the dilapidated Veterans Stadium. Backup utility man Ricky Ledee provided the only run of the game on a solo home run in the first inning and tracked down the ball for the final out in the ninth, another case in point that almost anything can happen in baseball.

A true fan attends at least one game at his team’s home stadium if at all possible. It’s a markedly different experience from watching the matchup on television.

The play-by-play is directed solely by the action (and perhaps a helpful knowledgeable fan seated nearby).

The color commentary is fleshed out by the sounds of the game — the umpire barking out calls, bat hitting ball, the PA announcer booming out the batters’ names and the cheers at every mildly interesting play.

Baseball is suited to the timing of a casual conversation. There’s plenty of time to discuss all manners of things within an inning while still catching all the major plays.

Some think the pace a downside, but the reality is that so much goes on within the smallest periods of the game. The catcher gets instructions from his manager in the team’s intricately formulated system of signs while the third base coach takes signs from his own dugout.

The batter takes signs from the third base coach to know whether he should let the pitch go by, bunt or swing away. The pitcher and catcher decide on a strategy as well — what pitch to throw, where to locate it, whether to throw to an occupied base to keep the runner close.

The avid fan can pay attention to such intricacies while the casual observer converses with friends and keeps one eye on the game.

Today’s world is fast-paced, yet many ballparks still fill up. Most clubs have responded to necessity, making an extra effort to fill seats, which seems a chore in the midst of a long recession.

Many modern stadiums are built to hold fewer fans for a more intimate experience, with the added benefit of numbers that are closer to full capacity. Television ratings have dropped in many markets.

That might be okay, though — radio seems better suited to baseball anyway. A good radio broadcaster can paint the audience a picture of the field from the sweat on the pitcher’s brow down to the cleats digging in.

For me, the warm voice of the late Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas always seemed just in place at the end of the longest days of the year.

Baseball may have lost its place as America’s favorite sport, but it continues to hold its charm. For me, that’s enough.

Dan Johnson is editor-in-chief of Three for Ten Sports and former managing editor of The Collegian at Grove City College.

An early offseason outlook for the Phillies

Though this year will likely be painful to watch for Phillies fans, it will be interesting to see how the club tries to develop its talent.

One interesting player to watch may be Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, the Cuban defector whose ascent to the majors was delayed multiple times by shoulder concerns. Though the question of whether he can last a full season in the majors remains to be answered, the Phillies made an interesting move on the depth chart — Gonzalez is no longer listed in the bullpen, but rather as the fifth starter.

With A.J. Burnett and Kyle Kendrick departing, Gonzalez will get another shot at a starting role this year.

Though no move is impending and the team needs a good return, Cole Hamels is on the trade block, and it wouldn’t be surprising if a team needing an ace ponied up the prospects to acquire him.

All that uncertainty means the Phillies will be looking to cobble together a rotation. If Cliff Lee is healthy, he’s the No. 1 or 2, depending on if Hamels is still around. Jerome Williams is a back-end option with a one year deal in place. David Buchanan seems likely to start the year somewhere in the middle of the rotation.

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The effect of injury on elite players

The debate about Hall of Fame worthiness is as healthy now as it’s ever been. As fans are provided with more statistics that illuminate certain aspects of value (here’s looking at you, WAR) and fantastic sites like Baseball Reference have all the information available a click away, within 24 hours of a game finishing, the fire is fueled for some healthy discussion.

In that vein, earlier this month Joe discussed Hall of Fame credentials and standards. There are some basic guidelines that won’t change in the eyes of the electorate (namely, baseball writers), and Joe does a good job outlining them. There are, however, some great players who are on the bubble for the Hall of Fame because of the negative impact of injury on their careers. How much should that affect the voters? It might seem unfair to keep great players from the Hall because of injuries, but it’s one of many aspects that feed into the composition of a career. None of those should be taken lightly.

Pitchers with poor deliveries

Sandy Koufax was a legend, without a doubt. His career-ending injury, however, could have cost him a Hall of Fame spot. He pitched brilliantly in his final six seasons and earned three Cy Young awards before leaving the game at 30. With what Larry Schwartz calls an “arthritic arm,” Koufax pitched four no-hitters.

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The Dodgers’ adaptation amidst pitching questions

The Dodgers have seen their fair share of injuries. Hanley Ramirez sits out with a strained oblique as I write, but the overwhelming majority of the club’s injuries have come from the pitching staff. As such, the rotation continues to develop as pitchers move on and off the DL (or extend their time on the injury list).

Still, only the Orioles have a larger lead in the division than the five games the Dodgers hold over San Francisco. Some of that is due to initial composition of a team with the largest payroll in baseball ($238.8 million, according to ESPN), but a portion of the credit can be given to the front office for moves that didn’t involve big spending.

The rotation

Earlier this month, Joe wrote a defense of Clayton Kershaw as one of the faces of the game. The Dodgers ace has been one of the best in the game, and since returning from DL in May, he’s been phenomenal. The lefty has a career-low 1.78 ERA to this point in the season. His numbers keep getting better, so the Dodgers can take comfort in the extension of an elite starter who continues to live up to his billing.

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Will Bryce Harper ever achieve superstar status?

Since the start of the 2012 season, one of the most talked-about players in all of baseball has been Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper. The 21 year old was called up that year at the tender age of 19, and was extremely impressive. His 20 home runs, 58 RBIs and 18 stolen bases warranted him a trip to his first All-Star Game, as well as the Rookie of the Year Award. Since then , Harper’s young career has been something of a roller coaster ride. He has shown flashes of brilliance, but will he ever be the once in a generation talent many experts believed him to be?

Harper’s journey through the Major Leagues

After winning the ROY in 2012, Harper looked to be getting even better in 2013. Through April of that season, he hit .344 with 9 home runs and 18 RBIs. For that first month, he seemed ready to become an MVP-type player, following in the footsteps of fellow outfield phenom and 2012 AL ROY Mike Trout. However, that’s when things started going downhill.

In May of 2013, Harper hurt his knee crashing into the wall in Dodger Stadium. A month-long trip to the disabled list did not turn out to be enough, as he would not be the same player after returning. For the year he actually put up nearly identical statistics to his rookie year, with 20 home runs, 58 RBIs, and a .274  batting average. These were good numbers, but slightly misleading, considering Harper was at his best in April. After his injury, though, he struggled mightily at the plate, partly because of the residual effects of his knee injury.

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