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Pre-Thanksgiving Reflections on An Unprecedented Year (Not Just In Sports)

November 22, 2016

Tags: Cubs and Cavaliers championships, Donald Trump, Roger Simon quoting Leonard Cohen, Francisco Lindor, Jason Kipnis, Joe Maddon, 1976 Basic Agreement

I find it amazing that to the best of my knowledge no one has noticed that 2016 marks the first time in the long history of Major League Baseball and the shorter history of the National Basketball Association that each champion was crowned after coming back from a 3 games to 1 deficit in the final series.

Not only that but both the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Chicago Cubs won their titles on the road - over the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Indians, respectively. It was a volatile year in sports, and the upset tide spilled over to politics with Donald Trump’s wholly unpredicted triumph over Hillary Clinton.

As usual the results in sports were clear-cut and indisputable unlike the very unsettling Trump electoral college victory that finds him the loser in the popular vote by at last count over one and a half million votes.

Hardly a mandate for alt-right foreign and domestic policies but that seems to be the direction the Trump administration will be going.

Roger Simon in the November 16 politico.com quoted a Leonard Cohen poem to provide the solace for those upset by the election result. Cohen, who died a day before 11/8/16, once wrote:

Ring the bells that can still ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That's how the light gets in.

RETURNING TO BASEBALL . . .
For those who love the triumph of underdogs, the World Series was a no-lose affair except, of course, for fans of Cleveland who will now have to wait until next year for the chance to win their first World Series since 1948.

The Indians have a young core of players not too close to free agency like shortstop Francisco Lindor and second baseman Jason Kipnis plus their formidable mound staff. So they surely have a fighting chance to return to the Series as early as 2017.

Though the Cubs had not won a world series since 1908, they were prohibitive favorites from the first day of spring training. It is not easy to deal with that pressure but master psychologist-manager Joe Maddon had the team embrace the challenge from day one.

At the same time, he tried to downplay the expectations with another one of his famous T-shirts, “Try Not To Suck.” His first T-shirt may have been his best.

Before the 2008 season of the Tampa Bay Rays, he handed out “9=8” shirts. It meant nine players working as a team can make one of the eight playoff spots. Sure enough Tampa Bay, a chronic non-contender before Maddon's arrival, made the playoffs though lost a rain-plagued World Series in five games to the Phillies.

The 2016 Cubs won their division going away with 103 wins. But October and early November baseball is another animal.

The Cubs showed their mettle by coming from behind in their last two playoff series. Not only in the Fall Classic over the Indians, but in beating the Dodgers in the NL Championship Series after falling behind two games to one.

Now the silly season of free agency is upon us. Part of me wishes that the first years of free agency could be restored. When the first Basic Agreement without the perpetual reserve clause was signed before the 1976 season, there was a limit to how many free agents could be signed by any club.

It’s unrealistic to think that will happen as every year there seem to be more and more free agents on the market. Some are very good, some not so good at all. It depends on smart management to decide what will work for one’s team and what won’t.

I just hope that players make sane judgments themselves and don’t allow their agents to make the choices for them.

That’s all for now. More thoughts on the hot stove league next month.

And always remember: Take it easy but take it!

Extolling Cubs' Feel-Good Triumph Despite Trump's Feel-Bad Triumph

November 13, 2016

Tags: Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Jeff Blauser, Mark Lemke, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Theo Epstein, Kyle Hendricks, Ryan Dempster, Harry Caray, Jake Arrieta, Pedro Strop, Scott Feldman, Steve Clevenger, David Ross, Joe Maddon, Andrew Miller, Rajai Davis, Clinton Inc., Ben Zobrist

The Cubs winning the World Series after 108 years of futility started the month of November like a feel-good story for the ages.

The young Cubs were essentially a very likable team. The youthful veterans at the corners, third baseman Kris Bryant and first baseman Anthony Rizzo, were both productive and amazingly poised for relatively inexperienced players.

They were both home-grown and lived through the bad years to further appreciate the surge to the top. I will never forget Hall of Fame southpaw Tom Glavine making the same point to me years ago.

He said that the secret to the Atlanta Braves’ great playoff run of the 1990s and early 2000s was that they learned to lose together before they were able to win together. Glavine and fellow Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz and under-appreciated double play combination Jeff Blauser and Mark Lemke all came through the Atlanta farm system.

Though the everyday core of the Cubs’ promising future also came from astute amateur scouting, the key pitchers on the new World Champions were either trade or free agent acquisitions. Jon Lester, a leading contender for the National League Cy Young award, and John Lackey were both free agent signings though Cubs president Theo Epstein knew them both from their work in Boston.

Kyle Hendricks and Jake Arrieta were obtained in savvy trades. Hendricks, the Dartmouth economics grad inevitably nicknamed “The Professor,” was still a minor leaguer when obtained from the Rangers for fading pitcher Ryan Dempster. (Dempster has become a broadcaster who does a good imitation of the late legendary voice of the Cubs and previously the Cardinals, Harry Caray).

As we Oriole fans never forget, Arrieta came from the Birds along with valuable reliever Pedro Strop. The Orioles received journeyman pitcher Scott Feldman - who finished 2016 with the Blue Jays - and minor league catcher Steve Clevenger.
(The latter will probably be best remembered for his thinly veiled racist-misogynist tweet that caused his release late last season by the Seattle Mariners.)

No mention of the Cubs triumph would be complete without an homage to backup catcher David Ross. Nicknamed “Grandpa Rossy” by Anthony Rizzo, Ross announced his retirement before 2016 started.

As Jon Lester’s special catcher, Ross was summoned into World Series Game 7 in the bottom of the 5th along with the star southpaw. (Why manager Joe Maddon yanked effective starter Hendricks after a controversial walk is still a mystery. My guess is that once Lester warmed up and was ready to pitch, Maddon decided he had to use him.)

Ross’s throwing error on a tough roller and a wild pitch that he couldn’t corral turned a comfortable 5-1 lead into a 5-3 nail-biter.

YET BASEBALL IS ALWAYS ABOUT REDEMPTION!

Though Hollywood might have turned down the story of the last AB of Ross’s career, in the very next half-inning, the top of the 6th, Ross homered to dead center off Cleveland’s usually unhittable reliever Andrew Miller. The dinger provided a crucial insurance run. So when Rajai Davis homered in the bottom of the 8th it only tied the game.

And now for something completely different . . .

The 2016 World Series was both an artistic and financial triumph. 40 million people evidently watched Game 7 and the Sunday night Game 5 easily outdrew Sunday night football.

And then Election Day happened.

In hindsight, we should have known it would be close, especially in a year that
was volatile all over the world. None of the “experts” thought Great Britain would leave the European Union, but “Br-exit” forces won.

In baseball terms, I felt all along that the Clinton, Inc. organization reminded me of the worst aspect of Yankee entitlement. They virtually bragged about having the most money and supposedly the best “ground game” to get out the vote on Election Day.

Well, it turned out this election might be summed up as The Revolt of the Deplorables. Hillary’s unfortunate description of the worst Trump supporters was a tasty morsel served to the opposition.

A disappointed friend of mine offered this analogy: “Hillary was like the pitcher given a six-run lead who couldn't finish or win the game.” Given the rightward drift of the country and the uneasiness of so many people who feel left behind, that judgment might be a bit harsh.

Yet I certainly don’t look forward to what these next four years might bring politically. But as always baseball serves as a huge consolation for those who understand it. Swinging for the fences works now and then, but hitting up the middle and controlled slashing down the lines remains the best weapons for success. That's how Series MVP Zobrist got the big hits in both the NL Championship and World Series.

That’s all for now - always remember: Take it easy but take it.

You Can’t Always Get What You Want But I Did Get My Dream Extra-Inning Game 7

November 3, 2016

Tags: Lowenfish's Law, Aroldis Chapman, Rajai Davis, Bernie Carbo, Carlton Fisk, Ben Zobrist, Joe Maddon, Theo Epstein, Anthony Rizzo, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Terry "Tito" Francona, Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, Bryan Shaw, Kyle Hendricks, David Ross, Dexter Fowler, Justin Turner, Kenley Jansen

If you scroll through these blogs over the past few years, you’ll see that I fervently believe in Lowenfish’s Law: No lead of four runs or less is ever safe in a baseball game until the last man is out.

In my last blog, I wrote that the Indians just might win a seventh game in what shaped up as a very close World Series. Well, the Indians did have a chance to win that seventh game on the second night of November.

They rallied from 5-1 and 6-3 deficits to score three in the 8th against the Cubs’ star closer Aroldis Chapman. Journeyman Rajai Davis hit a two-run home run to tie the game.

I couldn’t help thinking of a similar great World Series game in 1975 when Bernie Carbo hit a three-run homer in the bottom of the eighth to tie the game against Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine. Would there be a Carlton Fisk to win the game in extra innings?

That classic contest was only a Game 6 and this one was for all the marbles, a Game 7.
Alas for Cleveland, there was no Carlton Fisk on their roster. Chapman recovered his poise to retire the Indians in order in the 9th, and the Cubs got the lead in the top of the 10th on a clutch RBI single by Ben Zobrist, the deserving MVP of the Series.

I really had no horse in this race. Both teams deserved to win but in organized sports there is only one winner. I was glad that the triumphant Cubs were gracious in victory. Both manager Joe Maddon and team architect Theo Epstein praised the Indians for their gallant effort.

Zobrist, who now has won back-to-back World Series (he played for the 2015 champion KC Royals), added to his laurels as one of the classiest as well as most versatile of MLB players. He praised his teammate Anthony Rizzo for being so good that he was walked intentionally to get to Zobrist in the chance of getting the inning-ending double play.

People who truly love sports know there are times when it is a shame that there has to be a loser. The 2016 World Series was a prime example.

The Indians showed amazing heart not just in the last game but in sweeping the Red Sox in the first round, knocking out the Blue Jays in five games in the ALCS, and taking the highly favored Cubs to the last out of game 7 in the Series.

That the Tribe accomplished all this missing two key starters in their rotation, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, was quite remarkable. I know this is small consolation for Cleveland which has now not won a World Series since 1948 and has only appeared in four since then.

I think the most astonishing part of this Series is that no starting pitcher threw a ball in the seventh inning and very few got far into the sixth. The Indians had the superior bullpen and excellent manager Terry "Tito" Francona was not afraid to use Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, and Bryan Shaw more than one inning.

Joe Maddon didn’t have as many relief reliables as Francona but he hoped to get as many as three innings out of the powerful arm of Aroldis Chapman. This strategy almost backfired in Game 7 when starter Kyle Hendricks was yanked with two out in the 5th inning with a four run lead.

A throwing error by catcher David Ross followed by a wild pitch that led to two immediate runs made it a 5-3 game. But Ross, ending his 15-year major league career in style, atoned for his miscue with a big solo home run in the next half inning.
ANSWERING RUNS IN BASEBALL IS ALWAYS HUGE, ESPECIALLY IN BIG GAMES LIKE THIS.

So now winter has come for everyone in baseball, but very soon news of free agent possibilities and signings will hit the sports pages. Teams have exclusive rights to their potential free agents until five days after the Series ends, which means Monday November 7.

Here are some questions for the Series teams and one other playoff team to answer:
**Will the Cubs re-sign Dexter Fowler their leadoff hitter and centerfielder?

**Will they re-sign Aroldis Chapman or will he possibly return to the Yankees ?

**How will the Indians fortify their lineup with more power and consistent hitting?

**Will the Dodgers, who actually led the Cubs two games to one in the NLCS, keep their free agents - solid third baseman/timely hitter Justin Turner and potent closer Kenley Jansen?

Those answers will be coming soon. In the meantime, let’s salute everyone on the Cubs and Indians who kept winter away for so long.

That’s all for now - always remember: Take it easy but take it.

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“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