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

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!
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Cleveland On Verge of World Series While Cubs-Dodgers Are All Even

Baseball never fails to deliver the unexpected. The National League had a ho-hum season in which only a few teams - the Cubs, the Nats, and the Dodgers won more than 90 games.

The American League had far more competition and until the last week of the regular season it was possible that four teams - the Blue Jays, the Orioles, the Tigers, and the Yankees - might battle into play-in games prior to the wild card game.

So what happens? The Indians with a starting pitching staff minus two regular members, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, swept the Red Sox in the American League Division Series. After Monday night Oct 17’s 4-2 win at Toronto, the Indians are up 3-0 needing only one win to reach the World Series.

Manager Terry Francona, who led the Red Sox to World Series triumphs in 2004 and 2007, has used his bullpen masterfully and the offense has produced enough timely hitting to buttress his future Hall of Fame credentials.

Meanwhile it has been the NL that has provided the most consistent drama. The Dodgers, also suffering a shortage of starting pitchers, eliminated the Nats in a gripping five game NLDS.

Their great ace Clayton Kershaw, only recently back from months on the DL with serious back issues, came out of the bullpen to get the last two outs in a road win at Washington.
Closer Kenley Jansen entered the game in the 7th inning (just like Rollie Fingers and Goose Gossage used to do) beyond giving way to Kershaw for the save.

Kudos to Dodgers rookie manager Dave Roberts for making that bold decision. Roberts will now be known for more than being the pinch-runner who stole second against Mariano Rivera that fueled the Red Sox comeback against the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS
(American League Championship Series).

The Cubs, the only 100-plus winner in MLB this season, dispatched the Giants in four games in their NLDS but it wasn’t easy. In fact, they had to score four runs in the 9th inning to win at San Francisco. If they hadn’t rallied, they faced the challenge of beating Johnny Cueto in Chicago to move on in the playoffs.

The Cubs are young and loaded with talent at every position, and inventive manager Joe Maddon loves players who are versatile and can perform capably at many places on defense.

They rode a pinch-hit grand slam by Miguel Montero to win the first game against LA but that man Kershaw threw seven shutout innings in the second game and veteran first baseman Adrian Gonzalez’s solo home run was the margin of victory in a 1-0 win to even their NL Championship Series at one game apiece.

The Cubs ran away with the NL East this year and have never looked up at any team all season. Which makes the three games in LA this Tuesday Oct 18 through Thursday Oct 20 fascinating to watch.

The Cubs remain clear favorites to win the NLCS and their first World Series since 1908.
But the Dodgers have Kershaw and closer and free agent-to-be Kenley Jansen to head their
tattered but still resourceful mound staff.

What makes this post-season so refreshing is that managers Francona and Maddon are throwing away the conventional wisdom on pitching roles. Maddon has twice asked his formidable closer Aroldis Chapman, another free agent-to-be, to give him a six-out save.

That it hasn’t worked out either time doesn’t mean Maddon was wrong. It just shows that he is willing to take chances based on his knowledge of matchups and an intuition that has been honed by his long experience in the game.

All of Francona’s moves have worked out. He has his ace in Corey Kluber, the reigning AL Cy Young-winner, who has been impeccable in the post-season. And he has used his brilliant southpaw reliever Andrew Miller as early as the fifth inning and in Monday night’s 4-2 victory, he brought him in for a four-out save.

The old time fan in me has wanted a Cleveland-Cubs World Series because their World Series droughts have been the longest. Cleveland hasn’t won since 1948 and only has one other world championship flag to raise for the 1920 team.

They represent one of the smallest cities in baseball with a declining population and accordingly a relatively small payroll. They have drafted wisely and now the fruits of that patience are paying off.

You always build championships up the middle and three emerging Cleveland stars are at key positions - shortstop Francisco Lindor, second baseman Jason Kipnis, and center fielder Tyler Naquin, a rookie of the year candidate.

If the Indians close the deal on Toronto, they will present formidable opposition to either the Cubs or the Dodgers. They also will have the home field advantage in the World Series because the AL won the All-Star Game.

The Indians will not take anything for granted in trying to close out Toronto. Francona knows all about teams losing 3-0 leads in the playoffs because he led Boston to such a victory over the Yankees in 2004. But you have to like the Tribe's chances.

It is not right that home field advantage in the World Series is the product of the All-Star exhibition game. That rule is preposterous but so is incessant replay. Yet nothing can kill baseball as long as the games are played without lockouts and strikes.

So let’s enjoy the action and the chills and thrills because November 2nd is coming too soon - the day when the seventh game of the World Series if necessary is scheduled. Afterwards we all must face winter, never an appetizing thought.

As always remember: Take It Easy but Take It!
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