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Coping With The No-Baseball Blues, Installment 3

November 29, 2015

Tags: Jordan Zimmerman, Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Matt Williams, Drew Storen, Eddie Arcaro, Chris Davis, Scott Boras, Columbia and Wisconsin basketball struggles

The silly season of baseball free agency is upon us. Mark my words there will be a bevy of big free agent signings coming out of the winter meetings in Nashville starting on December 7. It must happen because programming at the MLBTV network is counting on it.

Just like in late July at the non-waiver trade deadline there must be trades to satisfy the needs of the network programming. Whether the trades and free agent signing are wise moves is another story. And woe be the team that makes moves for the sake of making moves.

The Detroit Tigers got a early jump on the signings by nabbing former Nationals starter Jordan Zimmermann for a reported $110 million over 5 years. The figure if accurate - and who really knows? - is in the ballpark of the $23 million a year that Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw has been making in recent years.

His teammate Zack Greinke, who arguably had a better 2015 than Kershaw, has become a free agent so he can capitalize on it. I don't begrudge free agency to players but I do not like the incessant 24/7 coverage with the money rubbed into our faces.

Zimmermann is the first pitcher to have had Tommy John surgery to earn a contract of over $100 million. At least that is what many sports news agencies are breathlessly reporting.

At 29 Zimmermann may still be pitching well five years hence. He certainly is a tough competitor.

I thought the yanking of Zimmermann by former Nats manager Matt Williams with two out in the 9th inning of a playoff game in 2014 was a great blunder. Zimmermann was pitching a shutout and reliever Drew Storen couldn’t finish it and the Nats lost that game in the 18th inning. (In hindsight, the 2015 Nats never recovered from Williams’ poor decision.)

However, the big question with long-term contracts is how long the fierce competitive desire will remain with such job and financial security.

Immortal horse racing jockey Eddie Arcaro once phrased the warning beautifully:
“It’s hard to get up early in the morning when you are wearing silk pajamas.”

The Orioles are facing head-on a similar question with powerful first baseman Chris Davis. Through agent Scott Boras, Davis reportedly wants a contract starting at least 5 years and maybe over $25 million per year.

Count on MLB network to be covering this saga minute by minute before, during and if necessary after the Nashville winter meetings. Of course, the "winter" meetings don't really happen during winter but that is one of baseball's harmless quirks.

The throwing of money at mediocre players is not harmless but Let The Buyer Beware remains a basic premise that good organizations must always keep in mind. Since there are not that many good organizations, expect a lot of wasteful spending in the days ahead.

Meanwhile to cope with the no-baseball-on-the-field blues, I continue to follow my two college/grad school alma maters’ basketball teams, the Columbia Lions and the Wisconsin Badgers.

Both are struggling, Wisconsin not surprisingly because of heavy losses from last year’s Final Two team. Columbia, alas, is finding the curse of expectations a heavier burden than expected. They lost two one-point games over the weekend and have slumped to 3-4 for the season.

Big Ten and Ivy League play do not start until January so no need to press panic button. Or so I remind myself constantly.

That’s all this time. Always remember: “Take it easy but take it!”

Proud To Be A Badger And A Lion

November 22, 2015

Tags: Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, Shaka Smart, Bronson Koenig, Nigel Hayes, Josh Gasser, Traevon Jackson, Alex Erickson, Jazz Peavy's controversial non-catch, Connor Cook, Ezekiel Elliott, Cardale Jones, Urban Meyer, Alex Rosenberg, Grant Mullins, Maado Lo, Luke Petresek, Al Bagnoli, Al McGuire, Dick Howser

Wisconsin had a difficult weekend on the hard court and the gridiron but some respectability was salvaged by winning a 74-73 thriller over Virginia Commonwealth on Sunday afternoon November 22. It was part of the Madison Square Garden early season tournament that Duke won over Georgetown.

We all knew that Wisconsin would have growing pains this season after losing to the NBA 7-foot center Frank Kaminsky (who graduated and is logging effective minutes with the Charlotte Hornets) and forward Sam Dekker who left after his junior year. (Unfortunately Dekker recently underwent a back operation that will keep him out of the Houston Rockets lineup, or more likely their developmental team, for at least three months.)

Georgetown led the entire game on Friday night in a convincing conquering of the Badgers but Wisconsin responded nicely with its thrilling one-point victory over the VCU Rams. Charismatic Shaka Smart now coaches the Texas Longhorns but he left a squad for former assistant Will Wade that should be competitive.

And it looks like that in perhaps Bo Ryan’s last year the Badgers will also be a force to be reckoned with in a very loaded Big Ten. Junior guard Bronson Koenig and junior forward Nigel Hayes are learning what it is like to be marked men with all of last year’s final four team mainstays gone from Madison.

I shouldn’t fail to mention that the experience of guards Josh Gasser and Traevon Jackson is also being missed.

Wisconsin’s football team lost its chance for a New Year’s Day bowl game on Saturday by falling in Madison on senior day to Northwestern’s Wildcats, 13-7.
It will long be remembered as a comedy of errors by the Badgers who committed five costly turnovers, most deep in their own territory.

It was a tribute to the stout defense that Wisconsin still had a chance to win the game in the last seconds. But video replay disallowed what would have been wide receiver Jazz Peavy’s first career touchdown. Though he caught the ball with one foot clearly in bounds in the end zone, replays revealed that he slightly juggled the ball falling out of bounds and thus “did not complete the process of the catch.”

What does that mean? The ball never hit the ground!

The nit-picking call was reminiscent of the replays in baseball where multiple viewings can show that a base runner left a base by a millimeter after successfully stealing it.

I don’t know how to stop replay once it gets entrenched. Maybe there should be a time limit on how long a replay can take. And the wording of the rules of replay be made more common sensical and less legalistic.

I was proud of how the Badgers reacted to the defeat in which a punt return for a touchdown was also called back because the official claimed receiver Alex Erickson had signaled for a fair catch. He had signaled with arms outstretched but not in the air that he didn’t want teammates to touch the ball. But when he didn’t hear a whistle he kept running and made a beautiful scamper to the end zone to no avail.

Erickson admitted that he thought the play would be called back. And his teammates generally felt that they hadn’t played well enough to win.

Consider the contrast in Columbus, Ohio when undermanned Michigan State, playing without their star quarterback Connor Cook, outplayed the Ohio State Buckeyes and ended their 23-game winning streak in a convincing 17-14 win.

Buckeye running back Ezekiel Elliott whined that he had only 12 carries and hinted he would turn pro after the season. So did backup quarterback Cardale Jones. Poor sports all. We will see how coach Urban Meyer, author of a recent book on leadership, responds to these comments.

Meanwhile my other alma mater on Sunday afternoon, the Columbia Lions evened its basketball record at 2-2 by trouncing Lehigh. Columbia lost an overtime heartbreaker at Northwestern on Friday night. They led the whole game but were held without a field goal for the last seven and a half minutes.

On Monday they didn’t seriously threaten Kansas State though played respectably and kept the game close. It is good that the pre-league season is providing some tough challenges for the Lions. Only false confidence can be bred by beating up on East Cupcake State, as the late great commentator Al McGuire used to call patsies.

Columbia is expected to do well in the Ivy League this year and with two seniors back from injuries, forward Alex Rosenberg and guard Grant Mullins, hopes are high on the Morningside campus. Senior guard Maado Lo is another force counted on.

It says here that the emergence of junior center-forward Luke Petresek will be a key to this year’s team. He has bulked up and has both a delicate outside touch and an improved rebounding presence.

So basketball has me hopeful and football is showing promise under new coach Al Bagnoli, the former Penn coach who led the Quakers to multiple Ivy League titles.
Though Columbia finished 2-8, four of their losses were by a combined 22 points.

Let me close with an old saying – I first heard credited to the late great Kansas City Royals manager Dick Howser: “Show me a team that plays close games and I’ll show you a winner one day.”

Happy Thanksgiving to all, and always remember: Take It Easy But Take It!

Music and Basketball As Antidotes to the No-Baseball Blues

November 11, 2015

Tags: Ken Griffey Jr., Trevor Hoffman, Mike Piazza, Columbia basketball, Alex Rosenberg, Maado Lo, Bo Ryan, Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, Chucho Valdes and Irakere

The darkest days of the calendar year are upon us. Daylight Saving Time is over and until December 21, days grow shorter and shorter. There are less than 100 days until pitchers and catchers report to spring training in 2016. So we try to be strong.

Yet there is so much of the MLB network one can watch. It was nice to see streamlined versions of the best post-season games – cut into two-hour segments - but after a while that grows old, too. And I have never been big on watching award shows.

Hall of Fame eligibility is another topic that doesn’t thrill me to the marrow. It seems likely Ken Griffey Jr. gets elected when the results of the balloting is announced on January 7.

I think Padres closer Trevor Hoffman has a chance but I’d wait a while longer on him. He certainly didn’t excel in his World Series appearances in 1998 and that should be at least a temporary cautionary message.

Mike Piazza needs less than 10 per cent of what he garnered last year to break past the 75% representation on all ballots to enter Cooperstown. Though he never failed a drug test (neither did Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire), the stigma of the “steroid era” still hangs over Piazza.

Here are two antidotes to the No-Baseball Blues:
1. I do have my college basketball teams to root for. Columbia is actually picked to do well in the Ivy League with the return of potent forward Alex Rosenberg from injury and stellar guard Maado Lo, who is shortlisted for both the Bob Cousy and Lou Henson awards given for outstanding backcourt play.

Both Rosenberg and Lo are seniors so it is a do-or-die year for coach Kyle Smith's team that looks deep except at the important center position.

Out in Madison, the Wisconsin Badgers will always be interesting under coach Bo Ryan who is hedging on whether this will be his last year. I hope he stays as long as
he wants.

He turns 68 next month and is a true basketball lifer – son of Chester, Pennsylvania high school coaching legend Butch Ryan, Bo worked his way patient up from the small college Division III ranks, excelling at U. of Wisconsin-Platteville.

Since his arrival in Madison in 2001 his Badger teams have never finished below 4th in the Big Ten. They are coming off two back-to-back Final Four appearances.

They avenged a 2014 loss to Kentucky last season but lost a controversial final to Duke when the refs stopped calling fouls on Duke in the second half and blew the whistle constantly on the Badgers.

Adjusting to life won’t be easy without the versatile seven-foot Frank Kaminsky, now with the Charlotte Hornets, and forward Sam Dekker, who left a year early to join the Houston Rockets.

No one realistically expects the Badgers to return to the Final Four for the third year in a row. Yet why be a sports fan if you can’t dream a little (or a lot)?

Gotta love a coach like Ryan who picked up his nickname Bo on the Chester playgrounds because he used to play the game like middleweight boxing champion Bobo Olson – all knees and elbows.

Antidote #2
“Jazz should wipe away the dust of every day life,” Art Blakey of the Jazz Messengers fame famously said. I thought of that insight after hearing Chucho Valdes and Irakere, his 9-piece band of young Cuban musicians, thrill a Town Hall audience in midtown Manhattan on Veterans Day eve.

At 74 pianist Valdes shows no signs of slowing down. A child prodigy and son of Cuban pianist Bebo Valdes, who after the Castro revolution lived the rest of his 94 years in Europe, Chucho has stayed in Cuba but has built a deserved world-wide reputation.

In his one set of almost two hours on Tuesday night, Valdes and Irakere thrilled the audience. The young Cuban horn players were passionate and excellent and the sounds of Gnawan Moroccan percussion enthralling.

Valdes of course has technique to burn but tonight it was always in the cause of compelling music-making. His rendition of Victor Young's bebop chestnut "Stella By Starlight" was astonishing. He effortlessly quoted from Matt Dennis's "I Could Happen To You" and Michel LeGrand's "You Must Believe in Spring" while never losing his sense of form.

A concluding ballad dedicated to his father was beautiful and not completed without some strains of Rachmaninov.

Before Valdes and Irakere head to Europe, they play in Boston on Nov 12, suburban Washington - the Strathmore in Bethesda MD on Nov 15, and Durham NC on Nov 16. If you have a chance don't miss them.

That's all for now in my first installment of Coping With The No-Baseball Blues.
More on my upcoming adventure hearing live classical Rachmaninov in my next installment.

In every season always remember: Take it easy but take it!

"The Ball Always Finds The Weakest Defender": Reflections on the Mets' World Series Loss

November 2, 2015

Tags: Curtis Granderson, David Wright, Terry Collins, Daniel Murphy, Lucas Duda, Wilmer Flores, Yoenis Cespedes, Michael Conforto, Matt Harvey, Jeurys Familia, Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon, Christian Colon, Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants World Series champions of 2014

I attended Game 4 of the World Series on Halloween night. It was the second of three must-win home games in a row, and in all of them the Mets held the lead for much of the action. However, this year's surprise entry in the World Series could win only the Friday matchup.

I only get emotionally involved with the Orioles, my passion for over 40 years, but I feel for those who lived and breathed and died with the Mets. The old saying in baseball, "The ball always finds the weakest defender," proved true in the final games of the Mets season.

The Mets seemed in control of the Halloween game once standout rookie left fielder Michael Conforto hit the second of his two solo homers to give the Mets a 3-1 lead after 5 innings. Rookie southpaw Steven Matz, from nearby Stony Brook, showed great poise in
his first Series start (incidentally the only one by a left-hander).

However, the Royals narrowed the deficit to 3-2 entering the 8th inning. Inconsistent Tyler Clippard walked two Royals with one out. Jeurys Familia was called upon for a five-out save. In moments a defining moment of the Series arose.

The ball found the weakest defender as Eric Hosmer hit a spinning grounder towards second baseman Daniel Murphy. It went under his glove for an error that tied the game.

It felt almost inevitable when singles by Mike Moustaka and Salvador Perez gave the Royals a 5-3 lead that shutdown closer Wade Davis cemented with a two-inning save.

Yet there was more pain ahead for the Mets. It seemed unnecessarily cruel when the baseball gods determined that the game would end with Yoenis Cespedes doubled off first base on a weak liner by Lucas Duda to third baseman Moustakas.

A cardinal rule of baseball is: Never be doubled off first base on a ball hit in front of you. Of course, Cuban defector Cespedes listens to the sound of his own drummer. And that gaffe was yet another sharp blow to the Mets' chances.

In Game 5, the Mets held the lead even longer than in Game 4. Curtis Granderson, the Mets' most consistent player all season including the playoffs, gave Matt Harvey a 1-0 lead with a leadoff-home run in the bottom of the first inning.

You can never overestimate the importance of grabbing the lead in any game, especially a season-saving game.

Harvey protected the lead for eight shutout innings and the Mets' disappearing offense did scratch out a second run in the 6th on a sacrifice fly by Lucas Duda.

Yet as we look back in hindsight, the Royals had the Mets where they wanted them. This year's deserving Kansas City champions broke all kinds of records for scoring runs in the late innings.

And sure enough after Harvey talked manager Terry Collins into letting him pitch the 9th inning, Lorenzo Cain led off with a full count walk. Collins left Harvey in and Eric Hosmer followed with a run-scoring opposite field double.

It was now 2-1 with the tying run on second with no one out. Hosmer was pumped because his error had contributed to the Mets' second run.

Collins brought in closer Jeurys Familia. He did get ground balls from the three batters he faced. But with Hosmer on third and one out, the final defining moment of this Series came.

Catcher Salvador Perez, the unanimous MVP for his solid hitting and handling of the pitching staff, hit a grounder between third and short. Either David Wright or shortstop Wilmer Flores could have handled the tricky hop.

Wright fielded it cleanly but turned his back on Hosmer, no speed merchant but a clever baserunner. Wright threw out Perez at first base, but Hosmer broke for home and Lucas Duda's throw was way off the mark. The game was now tied 2-2.

After leading since the first inning, it was a tremendous blow to the Mets. You could almost see the body language sag, maybe most in team captain Wright.

To quote Yogi Berra, it was deja vu all over again. The memory of Halloween night's loss had to be fresh.

They were two outs from victory in Game 1 in Kansas City when Alex Gordon homered off Familia. The pattern was becoming very apparent. Great teams have great mental toughness as well as great talent and the Mets were exposed as having neither.

Once the Royals tied Sunday night's game it seemed inevitable that they would win. And sure enough, they pushed 5 runs across in the 12th. The lead-gaining single was a pinch-hit by reserve infielder Christian Colon who hadn't swung a bat in a game for over 40 days.

Redemption came to the Royals and it was richly earned. They left the tying run on third base in Game 7 last year against Madison Bumgarner and the SF Giants. They dedicated this year to changing the Series outcome and they sure fulfilled their dream.

Now winter has come for those of us who dearly baseball. The Mets provided many great thrills for their fans. Their great young starting pitchers all performed well under the brightest lights. That should augur very well for their future.

But the Mets obviously need better defense and more consistent offense. Murphy and Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes were thoroughly held in check by the Royals. Both may leave as free agents.

Much too early to handicap next season. Every year is always different.

For 2015 let us hail the Kansas City Royals who richly deserved their title.

That's all for now. Always remember: Take it easy but take it!

Featured Work

History
Story of baseball's reserve system and the men who fought to change it
Biography/Sports
“Lowenfish’s take is detailed and nuanced.... he doesn’t look for simple answers; despite his own abiding admiration, he never sugarcoats or presents Rickey in anything other than a three-dimensional light.”
–David Ulin, Los Angeles Times